Hotel residents wait for release from quarantine at the Metropark Hotel where they were held for a week in Hong Kong Friday, May 8, 2009. Hong Kong on Friday lifted its weeklong quarantine on a downtown hotel where a Mexican swine flu patient stayed, releasing some 280 guests and employees who were isolated in the building. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
HONG KONG – Hong Kong lifted a weeklong quarantine Friday of an upscale hotel where Asia's first swine flu case was traced, allowing 280 guests and workers to end an isolation that was criticized as overkill by some but a medical necessity by authorities.
Towing suitcases and beaming, some guests of the Metropark Hotel found it hard to contain their delight as they poured from the glass double doors to waiting buses, divided from waiting reporters by metal barriers.
"I'm happy! I love Hong Kong people!" shouted a South Korean businessman, before breaking into song and hugging a policeman as he stepped out.
"It's nice to smell fresh air," added a British man who identified himself only as Matt.
Asia has been largely spared the virus that continues to claim lives in worst-hit Mexico, which announced its 45th death and 159 more cases Friday even as it emerged from a national shutdown that closed schools and businesses, and shuttered churches and soccer stadiums.
The swine flu virus has now spread to 28 countries, killed at least 47 people and sickened more than 2,500 worldwide.
In Asia, only Hong Kong and South Korea have confirmed cases of swine flu — just four in all and no fatalities — but governments remain mindful of the impact of bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
Health officials from a dozen east Asian nations meeting in Thailand on Friday agreed on a strategy to help stockpile anti-flu drugs and improve monitoring.
Hong Kong's swift lockdown of the Metropark — imposed after diagnosing the 25-year-old Mexican who flew to the city via Shanghai — has been criticized by some as an overreaction and initially irked guests stuck inside. But the government has been unswayed.
"We all understand the boredom, the frustration they experienced during the quarantine period," Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang told reporters outside the hotel. "We are thankful for the sacrifice they have made for the sake of public health."
Hong Kong officials also offered Metropark guests two extra days of hotel lodging after the quarantine and perks like Hong Kong Disneyland tickets, restaurant vouchers and movie tickets as a gesture of thanks.
"The general consensus is how great the staff — including hotel staff, police, health workers — have been," one hotel guest, James Parer said in an e-mail Friday. The 38-year-old businessman from Brisbane, Australia, said guests celebrated their last night under quarantine Thursday by cracking open a bottle of champagne on the roof.
"Drinks have been flowing quite freely," Parer said.
Another guest, Indian businessman Kevin Ireland, expressed some annoyance Friday over missing business meetings but concluded: "I think finally the government must do what the government must do."
The Mexican patient who prompted the quarantine was released from a hospital in Hong Kong on Friday.
Mexico has been angered by some of the responses to the swine flu outbreak, protesting what it called discriminatory trade and travel restrictions. Finance Secretary Agustin Carstens announced that Mexico's economy is officially in recession and could contract by 4.1 percent this year because of swine flu and a decline in exports to the U.S.
Some countries have "developed some attitudes which I will straightforward qualify as discriminatory against Mexicans," Mexico's U.N. envoy, Luis Alfonso De Alba, said in Geneva. "Having a Mexican passport has become a problem."
Mexico will press for a debate on the issue at a World Health Organization meeting this month, he said.
China has quarantined travelers from Mexico, and several nations have restricted Mexican food exports or travel to and from the country. Singapore now requires that Mexican nationals get visas and that travelers arriving from Mexico be confined for seven days on arrival.
The CDC report released by the New England Journal of Medicine said the Mexican toddler had a chronic muscle weakness called myasthenia gravis, a heart defect, a swallowing problem and lack of oxygen. The 33-year-old woman had asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and was 35 weeks pregnant.
On Friday, Canada reported a woman with swine flu had died in Alberta last month. She had other serious medical conditions, and the province's chief medical officer said it was not clear what role swine flu played in her death.
Mexico's health secretary, Jose Angel Cordova, said Friday tests confirmed Mexico has had 1,319 cases of swine flu, up 159 from Thursday. But he insisted the outbreak is declining across the country.
Restaurants, movie theaters, bars and businesses in Mexico reopened Thursday and students returned to high schools and universities for the first time in two weeks. Primary schools and day care centers reopen next week, while fans will be allowed to attend soccer games and churches will reopen this weekend.