The backstory: As Hong Kong struggles through a winter surge in COVID and flu cases, its healthcare system is feeling the strain. On Boxing Day morning, for example, emergency units at 10 public hospitals had wait times of over eight hours and were fully booked for people even with mild COVID symptoms.
More recently: Hong Kong is facing a dire shortage of Panadol, a trusted pain medication people use to ease COVID symptoms. So, people are panic-buying the drug, leading to empty shelves at local pharmacies. To keep up with demand, SCMP found some pharmacies have resorted to selling paracetamol in loose packs or strips. But the problem with that is consumers don't know the source and storage conditions of the pills, so it could be risky.
The development: To help ease the burden, SCMP reports that the Hospital Authority has ramped up its online services and boosted capacity at its facilities, which can now treat 4,000 patients daily. Of these appointments, over half are reserved for high-risk individuals, including the elderly, young children, pregnant women in their third trimester and those with compromised immune systems. These individuals can make appointments by calling a special hotline.
"This works equally well. They are the same pills that doctors will prescribe you, we have just repacked them from a big bottle," said a salesman at a pharmacy in Causeway Bay, offering to sell re-packaged pills in a Ziploc bag.
"Most customers are not buying the drugs for themselves. That's why they are very picky, but they all work just the same," said Lam Wai-man, chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Pharmacy. "Even though pharmacists would recommend the lesser-known brands, most customers would simply say no and continue to look for Panadol."
"The source and storage conditions of these loose drugs are unknown. If they were stored in damp places, their quality and efficacy may be affected. Some unethical pharmacies may seize the chance to clean out their stocks of drugs with unknown sources," said William Chui Chun-ming, president of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Hong Kong, on pharmacies selling drugs in loose packaging..
"It is believed that some traders hoarded medicine for a higher price, but I don't think this phenomenon is usual. The main reason for medicine shortage is the panic buying," said Cheung Tak-wing, the vice chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Pharmacy Limited.