Changes to Covid tests, tracking are coming
Covid-19 tests may soon be available at small local medical clinics, while a mobile application will allow the public to view virus patients' movements — elements of Korea’s efforts to tackle the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
The government is working on a response to Omicron as the strain now makes up more than 10 percent of total weekly Covid-19 infections. Given its extraordinary fast spread, health authorities warned that Omicron is “high likely” to become the dominant strain by the end of January.
They are doing a full review of Korea's so-called 3T strategy for public health measures — test, trace and treat — which wowed the world in the early days of the pandemic.
First, the government is determining new priorities for who needs a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
Currently, anyone wanting a PCR test in Korea can get it for free at a district office public health center or a large hospital.
But with testing demands expected to soar with Omicron, the government may restrict PCR tests to people with symptoms or who have come into contact with a patient — and among them, people who are more at risk such as the elderly, patients with underlying diseases, and unvaccinated people.
People who are asymptomatic or with mild symptoms will first be tested with self-testing kits. If they test positive, they will be retested with a PCR test.
The government is also diversifying testing sites and trying to involve grass root-level medical facilities, such as the hundreds of local respiratory and ENT clinics.
"Clinics must be equipped with a separate space and negative pressure facilities, but in reality, there are difficulties for general clinics to meet such conditions," said Park Kuk-jin, president of the Korean Association of Otorhinolaryngologists.
"I have proposed to the government measures [allowing] medical staff to treat patients in simple negative pressure facilities with appropriate protective gear and negative pressure booths."
Contact tracing has also been a major component of Korea’s virus response policy.
Currently, whenever a virus patient is found, staff from the local health center conduct epidemiological investigations and check their travel routes, notifying people who have visited the same places. But with new virus patients hovering above several-thousands every day, that tracing method will not be able to be sustained.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum noted that “selection and concentration strategy” is needed for contact tracing rather than chasing after all patients, saying the government will consider implementing a “citizen-participatory contact tracing model”.
The contact-tracing method done by public health centers will be changed to a method in which Covid-19 patients directly enter relevant information into an online link sent by the authorities.
"A self-entry epidemiological investigation form will be distributed to improve efficiency," an official from the Central Disease Control Headquarters said. "Once a link is sent like an online survey, Covid patients will have to enter their basic personal information, symptoms and information about contacted persons and send it back."
Authorities are also planning to expand the use of a mobile contact-tracking application in which Covid-19 patients put in their own records into the app.
Developed by a research team at Seoul National University in 2020, the app allows users to check whether they have visited the same places as Covid-19 patients based on their mobile GPS. If their routes overlap with a confirmed patient, a notification will tell them to take a Covid-19 test.
The app is currently being used in some parts of Seoul and Gyeonggi, and the government is reviewing whether it could be used across the country.
Home treatment will continue to be the default in the Omicron wave, with health authorities focusing on treating severely ill patients.
The government is planning on making smaller local medical clinics treat at-home patients as well as giving out-patient care.
With Pfizer’s oral treatment for Covid-19 Paxlovid set to arrive as early as Thursday, the country is also reviewing whether medical clinics can prescribe the pills. Details on that treatment are to be announced on Wednesday at the earliest.
Meanwhile, the government is reviewing whether it could ease current social distancing measures limiting up to four people to gather nationwide and forcing businesses to close at 9 p.m., set to expire on Sunday.
Korea on Tuesday reported 3,097 new Covid-19 cases, down by 767 from two weeks ago and staying in the 3,000s for five consecutive days.
The daily average of Covid-19 patients over the past week went down from 4,119 to 3,387 compared to the week earlier.
Severe Covid-19 cases, which had remained in the 1,000s for weeks, recorded 780 as of Tuesday — giving hopes to many that the virus curbs could be lifted.
“It is a very positive sign for pandemic indicators to show improvement, yet the spread of Omicron is unusual,” Park Hyang, director of antivirus measures at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, told a briefing on Tuesday, stressing that officials will come up with a new distancing plan after careful review.
New social distancing measures will be announced on Friday.
BY HWANG SU-YEON, SEO JI-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]