By Joyce Zhou and Farah Master
HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong parents rushed children as young as 3 years old to vaccination centres this week as the government lowered the age limit for the shots and the deaths of two toddlers exacerbated concerns in a city struggling to cope with a COVID-19 surge.
The government approved children 3 and older to take China’s Sinovac vaccine from Feb. 15, while those 5 and older can take the BioNTech shot.
The measures come as the Chinese territory has recorded a 60-fold surge in infections since Feb. 1, overwhelming the global financial centre’s hospitals and testing facilities.
A 3-year-old and 4-year-old, both diagnosed with coronavirus, died in the past week. Authorities said they were “saddened” by the deaths and would offer assistance to the children’s’ families.
At a vaccination centre in the northern New Territories district on Friday, long queues formed early in the morning, with parents and children braving wet and windy weather before being allowed inside for vaccinations.
Dozens of children were bundled up in jackets, some clutching their parents as they stood in line. All wore masks, while some also had plastic face shields.
“I was extremely worried when I heard the news that a 3-year old and 4-year-old had died. So I immediately made an appointment,” Yoki Tsang, who has two boys aged three and five.
“It’s heartbreaking to hear the child passed away like this,” she said as she waited with her three-year-old outside the centre.
The rush to get children vaccinated comes as the city’s hospitals are overflowing, with elderly and children on beds in cold and rainy parking lots. Isolation facilities are full, while thousands queue for hours outside testing venues.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, this week told Hong Kong’s leaders to control the outbreak as its top priority, with the mainland ramping up to help Hong Kong with testing and building of isolation facilities.
Hong Kong reported 3,629 new daily COVID-19 infections on Friday, with an additional 7,600 preliminary positive cases, authorities said.
The city has recorded over 40,000 infections and around 240 deaths since the pandemic started, far fewer than in other major cities. However daily infections are expected to approach 30,000 by the end of March, experts said.
Although 85% of the city’s 7.4 million residents have received at least one vaccine dose, about 60% of residents older than 80 remain unvaccinated. About 12% of children ages 3-11 have received a vaccine, government data showed.
Health authorities have identified the elderly and young children as high risk, encouraging vaccinations.
Some parents have pushed for their children to be isolated at home rather than sent to a hospital or a government quarantine facility because of the difficulty of caring for them and the emotional toll from being separated.
Infants and toddlers have during the past two years been separated from their parents after being infected, resulting in a harrowing and traumatic experience, some residents said. The government has since said a parent is allowed to accompany their children.
Joe Wong, 41, said he used to worry about vaccinating his 6-year-old daughter, but changed his mind.
“We are all worried that something will happen to her,” he said. “I hope she will have more protection after getting vaccinated.”
(Writing by Farah Master. Editing by Gerry Doyle and Christina Fincher.)