Omicron could be dominant this weekend
Thursday was the second anniversary of Korea's first Covid-19 case being reported, and health authorities warned that a surge of new infections was possible with the Omicron variant.
Given its rapid transmission pace, authorities warned that daily new Covid-19 cases could soar to 15,000 by the end of February.
“Although Omicron is not yet the dominant strain, it is expected to become dominant by the end of this week or early next week,” Kwon Joon-wook, deputy director of the Central Disease Control Headquarters, said in a press briefing on Thursday.
According to the headquarters, Omicron is jumping to dominance — accounting for more than 50 percent of sequenced cases — just eight to nine weeks since its first case in Korea on Dec. 1.
The Delta variant took 14 weeks to become dominant after the first patient was found in late April. It accounted for 48 percent of total infections in the third week of July and 61.5 percent in the fourth week.
According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), Omicron accounted for 26.7 percent of all domestic infections last week, which is more than double the previous week's figure.
“Omicron’s propagation is much greater than that of Delta and thus the number of new infections is likely to increase exponentially,” Kwon noted.
New daily infections in Korea, which declined to 3,000 to 4,000 after stronger social distancing measures were implemented on Dec. 18, jumped to 5,805 on Wednesday and 6,357 on Thursday fueled by Omicron.
“If transmission during the Lunar New Year holiday is not brought under control, up to 10,000 to 15,000 new cases could occur a day at the end of February,” Kwon said.
While on a state-visit to Egypt, President Moon Jae-in ordered the government to exert all-out efforts to swiftly shift into Omicron-tailored public health measures.
“It is a fait accompli that the Omicron has become a dominant strain,” Moon said, according to presidential spokesperson Park Kyung-mee.
Health authorities said the country will transition into an Omicron-tailored response system if daily Covid-19 infections average around 7,000.
“Since it takes time for changes in the medical and diagnostic test system to settle and operate in earnest, we will have one to two weeks to gradually switch [the response system] from the 7,000 level,” Son Young-rae, senior epidemiological strategist at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, told reporters on Thursday.
The government previously said it would adopt a “preparatory stage” against Omicron if daily infections rise into the 5,000s, and immediately initiate a “response stage” once the number exceeds 7,000.
Once the country implements a response stage, grass root-level medical facilities, such as local respiratory and ENT clinics, will start initial treatment of Covid-19 patients.
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 more at risk for severe illness, patients with symptoms, the elderly, and close contacts — while rapid antigen tests will be expanded.
The quarantine period for confirmed patients and home-treated patients will be shortened from the current 10 to seven days.
The government is scheduled to announce detailed plan on the Omicron-related medical system on Friday.
The Korea National Institute of Health of the KDCA announced Thursday that neutralizing antibody titers against Omicron rose 28.9-fold after the third vaccine dose from 10.5-fold. Neutralizing antibody titers are antibodies that neutralize virus infections and induce preventive effects.
According to their studies, neutralizing antibody levels against the Delta variant also increased by 21-fold.
Kwon, who is also the Korea National Institute of Health's director, noted, “It is a result confirming that a third shot can be the most powerful defense.”
BY SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]