Covid has surged through nursing homes in Hong Kong.

HONG KONG — For two years, this city had largely avoided a major coronavirus outbreak, thanks to tight border controls and strict social distancing measures. Then Omicron triggered an explosion of infections, exposing the city’s failure to prepare its older — and most at risk — residents for the worst.

In a matter of weeks, the outbreak quickly overwhelmed Hong Kong’s world-class medical system. Ambulances arrived at emergency units in droves. Hospitals ran out of beds in isolation wards. Patients waited in gurneys on sidewalks and in parking lots, given emergency blankets for warmth during the coldest and wettest time of the year.

Hong Kong’s early success in keeping the pandemic at bay was the starting point of a complacency that has now had deadly consequences. Officials moved too slowly to prepare for a broader outbreak, and did too little to address misinformation around vaccines, social workers and experts say. For many of the city’s one million residents who are 70 or older, the risk of getting sick had long seemed so low that they avoided getting inoculated.

Before the current outbreak, less than half of the people in that age group were vaccinated. Among residents of care homes, the rate was even lower, at just 20 percent, according to the Hong Kong Council of Social Service. Now they are bearing the brunt of the city’s worst outbreak. More than 200 people have died this month from Covid, many of whom were over 70 and unvaccinated.

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