Omicron projected to become dominant strain by end of month
As more than 10 percent of the week's new Covid-19 cases in Korea were caused by the Omicron strain, President Moon Jae-in urged for a swift decision on fourth vaccine shots, while oral treatments are set to be introduced in Korea this week.
“It will only be a matter of time before the Omicron variant becomes the dominant strain in Korea,” Moon said while chairing a meeting with top aides at the Blue House on Monday.
“Before Omicron becomes dominant, the Covid-19 booster shot program should be completed among people under 60,” Moon said, and called on health authorities to discuss a possible fourth jab inoculation program.
The government has previously mentioned fourth Covid-19 vaccine doses for people with weak immune systems, such as leukemia patients, yet drew a line on offering fourth shots to the general public.
President Moon also urged for a quick conclusion on whether to expand vaccinations to younger kids. Currently, children under 12 are not eligible for Covid-19 vaccination in Korea.
Moon also announced that oral treatment for Covid-19 will be available for use in the country starting this week.
“Oral medication is being introduced here much faster than in other countries, which is very fortunate,” he noted, ordering the treatment be prescribed to the elderly first, who are being treated at home or at residential treatment centers.
The president’s latest remarks come as Omicron was found to make up more than 10 percent of total weekly infections already, and is expected to become the dominant strain by the end of this month.
"[Omicron] is spreading fiercely in the United States and Britain and it is found to be responsible for more than 95 percent of new infections [in the two countries]," Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said in a Covid-19 virus response meeting in Seoul on Monday.
"Although the Omicron variant accounts for around 10 percent of infections nationwide as of now, experts say it will become the dominant strain within a month or two, given its high transmissibility,” Kwon added.
According to the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, the domestic detection rate of Omicron stood at 12.5 percent for the first week of January (from Jan. 2 to 8) — in other words, more than 12 out of 100 people were infected with the new Omicron variant. The rate, which stood at 1.1 percent in the second week of December, slowly climbed to 1.7 percent in the third week, 1.8 percent in the fourth, and 4 percent in the fifth week.
It only took just over a month for Omicron to account for more than 10 percent of infections since the country saw its first cases of the variant on Dec. 1. This far exceeds the transmission pace of the currently-dominant Delta variant, which surpassed the 10-percent mark about three months after the first patient was discovered in April last year.
Lee Sang-won, head of the epidemiological investigations team at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, warned that Omicron is “high likely to become dominant around end-January.”
The government is especially worried about the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays — spanning Jan. 31 until Feb. 2 — as the number of infections are expected to surge with more travels.
“The Lunar New Year holiday is expected to be a watershed with many people traveling,” the health minister said, adding, “there is not much time left in the golden hour to thoroughly prepare for the upcoming Omicron wave.”
The government says it can currently handle 750,000 Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests a day. But with the number of testing demands expected to soar, triggered by Omicron, the government said it will expand this capacity to perform up to 850,000 PCR tests per day.
It will also determine the priority for receiving such PCR tests.
“We are reviewing giving priority for PCR tests mainly to the elderly, patients with underlying diseases, and people with a higher risk of infection such as those who have come into close contact, and people prone to cluster infection such as nursing facilities employees,” health official Lee said.
In addition, the government hinted at adopting rapid antigen tests at local hospitals and smaller medical clinics, where primary Covid-19 treatment may be possible.
Such a response system against the Omicron variant will be announced this week after discussions on Wednesday with a government-private sector committee to draw up a road map for the post-pandemic transition to normalcy.
Meanwhile, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) on Monday evaluated the Covid-19 risk for the metropolitan area as “medium” and "low" for areas outside greater Seoul, based on the past week, as the country continues to see a downward trend in pandemic indicators. The country as a whole was given a "medium" risk rating.
On Monday, Korea reported 3,007 new Covid-19 cases, staying within the 3,000s for four consecutive days. Of them, however, 239 were transmitted from overseas, recording the second-largest number in imported cases, following the massive virus outbreak in July from the Navy’s Cheonghae unit destroyer dispatched to the Gulf of Aden.
The number of patients in critical condition stood at 786, remaining below 1,000 since Dec. 4. This is the first time in 34 days for the number to make it into the 700s.
With the drop in critical cases, the nationwide occupancy rate of Covid-19 intensive care unit beds recorded 47.6 percent.
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