City leader Carrie Lam ruled out a hard, China-style lockdown on Tuesday.
But the following day, Beijing-controlled newspapers carried an order from President Xi Jinping telling Hong Kong authorities to take “all necessary measures” to control the outbreak.
Yet it remains unclear whether Hong Kong could ever make it back to zero Covid-19 cases, given the rapidly increasing number of infections in the territory.
The government has opened temporary Covid-19 clinics and plans to build a makeshift mega-hospital.
It also plans to requisition 3,000 unoccupied public housing apartments and is looking into whether hotels can house some cases.
But whether those measures will come in time remains to be seen.
In the Caritas parking area past the “fever zone”, a worried mother cradled her two-year-old – trying to keep the toddler comfortable as they waited in the 15 deg C chill.
“I kept calling the (government Covid-19) hotlines but none of them connected,” the woman, who provided just her surname Chau, told AFP, adding that her daughter was running a high fever.
When they arrived two hours prior, nurses instructed her to get tested – which could take hours as she joined some 120 people waiting outside Caritas.
“They have no wards for you, so you have no choice but to go home,” Ms Chau said.
Healthcare professionals have long warned that Hong Kong’s public hospitals were underfunded and unprepared for a coronavirus surge.
Even during previous flu outbreaks, hospitals had “buckled”, said Dr Siddharth Sridhar – a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong – in a tweet on Wednesday.
“Now, with a disease that is more transmissible/severe than flu, and requires exposed staff to quarantine, HK’s hospitals are sandcastles in a tsunami.”