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Hong Kong bans all flights from U.S. and seven other countries as omicron spreads

An aircraft operated by Cathay Pacific approaches Hong Kong. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg News)

HONG KONG — Hong Kong officials on Wednesday implemented the city’s strictest restrictions since the coronavirus was first detected here two years ago, including banning all passenger flights from eight countries, as it holds firm to a “zero-covid” policy amid a growing outbreak of the omicron variant.

Hong Kong has only a handful of community infections, including six omicron cases linked to a restaurant cluster. But the harsh restrictions are in part a response to the territory’s relatively low vaccination rates, particularly among the elderly. Only about 20 percent of those above age 80 are fully vaccinated, according to government statistics.

The restrictions also underscore how Hong Kong is hardening on its pandemic policy of eradicating the virus in the community at all costs, with the aim of zero new infections, even if it is leaving the international financial hub increasingly isolated and eroding its global competitiveness.

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In announcing the new measures, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam described them as more “decisive and comprehensive” than any other restrictions the city has seen over the past two years. Passenger flights from the eight countries — the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan and the Philippines — had to be suspended, Lam said, because of a “drastic” increase in imported coronavirus cases.

“We are on the verge of another outbreak,” she said.

Those routes are the most heavily trafficked into and out of Hong Kong, and include most of the cities where residents are returning from. The suspension will take effect Saturday and last for two weeks before it is reviewed. The flight bans are the most widespread restrictions on travel into Hong Kong since the pandemic began, although authorities periodically ban certain airline routes if they are found to be carrying several travelers infected with the coronavirus.

Hong Kong is also returning to some of the strictest social distancing measures, including a ban on dining in restaurants after 6 p.m. and the closure of facilities such as gyms and beauty parlors. Life in the city had largely been normal in recent months, with bars, clubs, schools and other places open and packed, as authorities congratulated themselves for bringing community cases down to zero. Lam was also readying to reopen the border with mainland China, a priority for Hong Kong.

For the time being, schools remain open.

The city discovered its first community transmission of the omicron variant on New Year’s Eve, after an infected flight attendant broke home isolation rules and dined out at a restaurant. That infection chain has quickly grown into a cluster, with the latest close contacts brought back onshore from a “cruise to nowhere” that was sailing in Hong Kong waters and ordered into a government isolation facility.

In a news conference Wednesday announcing the new restrictions, officials said that infected travelers returning from destinations abroad are vaccinated and therefore stable and not putting undue strain on the hospital system. Hong Kong has mandatory hospitalization for positive coronavirus cases, even those who are asymptomatic.

But if the virus spreads more broadly in the community — with vaccination rates still lagging — the city will be in a “risky” position, said Tony Ko, chief executive of Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority.

The new infections have prompted a rush to vaccination centers across the island, many of which are booked up for the next weeks. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinovac vaccines have been available for almost a year.

Hong Kong has not articulated a plan for reopening or loosening border restrictions, mirroring the zero-covid policy on the mainland rather than shifting to the strategy of living with the virus being adopted elsewhere in the world. Lam, speaking Wednesday, said she could not commit to any easing of restrictions even if the vaccination rate hits a certain percent of the population.

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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