Things are Getting Ready to Return to Normal in Korea
Evaluating that COVID-19 is in its initial stages of becoming an endemic disease, the government said Tuesday that it would push for recovering daily life if it can stably manage the situation.
“Korea is at the beginning stage of the transition toward managing Covid-19 like an endemic while continuing to confirm the risk of the Omicron variant,” said Park Hyang, head of the overall quarantine team at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters (CDMH), in a daily briefing. “We still have a long way to go but are at the beginning of the search for an exit.”
Park added that if the nation can maintain a low mortality rate and stably manage its spread, the response to Omicron would transit to the management system of other infectious diseases.
Some rapid Covid-19 testing devices are still available in the market despite their poor performances, experts said.
According to CDMH, the Omicron variant’s transmission speed is fast, but its fatality and severity rates stand at 0.18 percent and 0.38 percent, respectively, about a quarter of the Delta variants. Among fully vaccinated people under 50, the Omicron’s mortality rate is near zero percent but is relatively higher among those 60 or older and unvaccinated people.
Considering such characteristics of the Omicron variant, the government focuses on minimizing the loss of lives caused by severe progression of symptoms and death.
Besides, at a time when the number of patients receiving at-home treatment is rapidly increasing, the government has increased medical institutions that manage the high-risk group to 738 places and monitored more than 210,000 people and secured 6,386 institutions where the low-risk group can receive non-face-to-face treatment.
“We are entering a process to co-exist with the Omicron variant,” said Son Young-rae, head of the social strategy team at CDMH. “The recent series of steps, such as shortening quarantine period, narrowing the scope of contacts, and reorganizing quarantine system in a way that enables normal daily life, is to meet this purpose.”
Son added that the health authorities would continue to improve the system so that neighborhood clinics can play a more significant role in the daily medical system. However, the government stopped short of specifying when and how it would restore everyday life.
“We will start considering it after watching whether the current spread reaches a peak and turns downward and comprehensively evaluating the situations of severely ill patients, death tolls, and the medical system’s capacity,” Son said.
Commenting on the relaxation of social distancing rules, Son said, “If the Omicron wave stabilizes, we will positively consider revising the current quarantine measures, and naturally include reducing or adjusting the vaccine mandate in this process.”
Private experts agreed on the possibility of Covid-19 becoming an endemic barring the appearance of new variants. However, they called for a cautious approach, noting that the spread continues.
“In terms of the fatality rate, COVID-19 has almost become like the flu for vaccinated people. Because of the Omicron variant, COVID-19 can become influenza-like,” said Kim Yun, a professor of medical management at Seoul National University Hospital. “Experts regard the Omicron as the pandemic’s last wave because the possibility is low that a new variant with stronger contagious power than Omicron will appear.”
Kim Woo-ju, a professor of infectious diseases at Korea University Guro Hospital, also said, “Without the appearance of a new variant, Korea will come closer to a normal daily life this winter,” Professor Kim said. “However, it is worrying that the ‘stealth Omicron’ is increasing.”
Other experts were more direct in criticizing the government. “It is wrong that the government says like, ‘Take it easy.’ Instead, officials have only to say, ‘The government will prepare for the increase in severely ill patients,’” said Professor Lee Jae-gap of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Hallym University Gangnam Sacred Hospital.
On Tuesday, Korea reported 99,573 new Covid-19 cases, including 99,444 local cases, raising the total caseload to 2,157,734, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). The health authorities have warned that the caseload could spike further to as high as 270,000 by early next month due to the highly transmissible omicron variant.
The death toll came to 7,508, up 58 from Monday, and the fatality rate was 0.35 percent. The number of critically ill patients stood unchanged at 480. Despite the latest wave of virus infections, the government extended the business hour curfews for cafes and restaurants by one hour to 10 p.m.
Currently, a total of 69,797 people are on the authorities' list for special monitoring, and the government has the capacity of managing up to 210,000 patients with extra care, the KDCA said. The number of patients receiving at-home treatment rose to a new high of 490,322.
Korea plans to bring in additional Paxlovid antiviral treatment pills for 40,000 people (about twice the seating capacity of Madison Square Garden) by around the end of this month. In addition, the country has secured Pfizer's medication for 762,000 people, and the pills for 32,000 patients have been brought in so far.
From Monday, the government began prescribing Paxlovid to patients in their 40s with underlying diseases. As of Tuesday, 30.63 million people (about the population of Texas) had received booster shots, 59.7 percent of the country's 52 million people. The number of fully vaccinated people came to 44.31 million, accounting for 86.3 percent.
On Wednesday, a total of 615,000 doses of Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccines will arrive. The planned shipment will raise the total amount of coronavirus vaccines delivered here to 7.58 million this year, with the country planning to bring in 142.86 million doses this year, the KDCA said.
Lee Han-soo from Korea Biomedical Review (February 22, 2022)