Omicron's rise brings Covid cases back above 5,000
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 5,805 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, up by 1,734 from the day before. This was the first time daily figures exceeded 5,000 in 20 days, following the 5,034 cases registered on Dec. 30. Although cases reported on Wednesdays or Thursdays tend to peak due to more testing conducted on weekdays, the latest figure marked an increase of 21.5 percent, or 722 cases, from a week before.
“During this three-week period of social distancing, including the Lunar New Year holiday, the Omicron strain will replace Delta and take up 80 to 90 percent [of total new infections],” noted Son Young-rae, senior epidemiological strategist at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, forecasting that an increase in new patients is “thus inevitable.”
According to the KDCA, Omicron accounted for 26.7 percent of all domestic infections last week, and that percentage soared to 94.7 percent among imported cases. The figure for this week will be released next Monday.
Health authorities have announced a response designed to tackle the Omicron spread, giving more freedom to the public.
According to the revamped strategy, the country will adopt a “preparatory stage” if daily infections rise into the 5,000s, and initiate a “response stage” once the number exceeds 7,000.
With daily cases passing the 5,000 mark, Omicron patients will be allowed to receive treatment at home if they are asymptomatic or show mild symptoms from Wednesday.
Previously, people with Omicron had been obliged to be admitted to hospitals or residential treatment centers. Under the new system, the elderly or patients with underlying diseases — who are at higher risk of becoming severely ill — are to be assigned to the facilities, while the rest stay at home.
“Considering that the regional spread of Omicron is in full swing and the rate of deteriorating into severe illness is lower than that of Delta, we would like to shift the treatment system from residential treatment centers to at-home,” Son said.
The government earlier noted that it would shift into a “selection and concentration strategy” for public health measures from the so-called "3T strategy" — test, trace and treat — once cases hover around 7,000 a day.
First, Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests — which have been offered for free to anyone at district public health centers or large hospitals — will be prioritized for people 65 or older; people with symptoms; people who had close contact with patients; and those who test positive on a rapid antigen test.
Asymptomatic patients under 65 will have to get tested with a rapid antigen test at a medical facility. To facilitate that, the government plans to use local medical clinics as testing sites and apply health insurance to rapid antigen tests.
People receiving at-home care will be isolated for seven days, down from the current ten, while cohabitants will be released from quarantine after seven days if they test negative on the sixth.
On the controversial vaccine pass system, Korea added another two groups who don't need to present a vaccine pass — either a vaccination certificate or a negative PCR test result — to enter facilities requiring such documents.
Currently, the list of people exempted from the vaccine pass system includes minors under 19; those who have been released from quarantine after contracting Covid-19; those whose second vaccination has been postponed or prohibited after experiencing a serious adverse event from the first dose; those who need to postpone a vaccination due to a weakened immune system or who are taking immunosuppressants or anticancer drugs; and those who can't be vaccinated due to medical reasons.
On Wednesday, health authorities included people who have been hospitalized within six months of vaccination or those who have applied for national compensation for vaccine side effects but were rejected due to no proof of causality. They will be able to receive exemptions starting Jan. 24.
“With vaccine passes expanded throughout all establishments as an alternative to social distancing, [the new measure] is aimed at minimizing the inconvenience of people who tried to get vaccinated but failed due to side effects,” the KDCA explained.
BY SEO JI-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]