Omicron variant dominates in Gwangju, Gyeonggi areas
The country is seeing a rapid rise of Omicron cases in the Gwangju and Gyeonggi areas and expects the highly infectious variant to become the dominant strain of new Covid-19 infections around the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.
Korea added 7,630 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday, marking the second-highest daily number since the onset of the pandemic.
Of the new local cases, 2,667 were based in Gyeonggi, 1,634 in Seoul, 589 in Incheon, 448 in Daegu and 306 in Gwangju, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Many of these regions have reported Omicron as the dominant strain in new infections.
As of last week, Omicron accounted for a majority, or 59.2 percent, of all new infections in the Honam region — referring to the North and South Jeolla provinces and Gwangju — according to the Health Ministry. In Gwangju and South Jeolla alone, Omicron made up nearly 80 percent of new infections.
Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, home to a U.S. Forces Korea base where a multitude of Omicron infections was found, and neighboring Anseong, Gyeonggi, are also regions where Omicron now dominates new infections.
Health authorities expect the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday to be a transition period during which Omicron will likely become the dominant strain in infections nationwide.
“We think Omicron will replace Delta cases in Korea during the period of one to two weeks over the Lunar New Year holiday, and we may see Omicron account for some 80 to 90 percent of new cases,” Lee Gi-il, senior official of the Health Ministry, said during a press briefing at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters in Sejong on Friday. “With this, we expect the number of infections to increase inevitably.”
Noting that Omicron spreads two to three times faster than the Delta variant, but also is less likely to lead to severe illness, the Health Ministry emphasized the importance of swift diagnosis of and treatment for patients at higher risk and decided to place these regions under a different testing and treatment system.
Starting Wednesday in Gwangju, South Jeolla, Pyeongtaek and Anseong, the free polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for Covid will only be available to high-risk groups such as people who are epidemiologically linked to virus patients, those with a doctor’s note citing the need for a Covid-19 test, people aged 60 or older and those who tested positive with a self-testing kit or rapid antigen test. People with symptoms weren’t included because of the ambiguity, health authorities said.
Anyone who does not fall into those categories will be asked to use self-testing kits provided at the testing center, or rapid antigen tests at a number of designated local clinics. These tests are still free of charge, but those visiting local clinics will have to pay the minimum doctor’s consultation fee of around 5,000 won ($4), according to the ministry. The negative test results, verified by the testing center or the clinic, will be valid for 24 hours, according to the ministry.
"After implementing the new system in the four regions and assessing the situations in other parts of the country and public feedback, the government will decide whether to expand its implementation," said Lee.
The rise of Omicron cases in Korea comes against the backdrop of a months-long battle against the fourth and largest wave of the pandemic, since mid-July.
As cases rose and eventually peaked after the country implemented its “Living with Covid-19” scheme and relaxed its social distancing measures in November, the country from mid-December re-introduced some of these measures to restrict the number of people allowed to gather in public facilities and expanded the vaccine pass system to include cafes, restaurants, museums, hagwon (private cram schools) and large-sized supermarkets and department stores. The pass system has been lifted at supermarkets, department stores, hagwon, libraries, museums and art galleries as of Jan. 18.
The daily cases, which peaked at 7,848 on Dec. 14, dipped to as low as 3,007 on Jan. 9, only to climb back rapidly as Omicron grew to account for the majority of new cases in some regions.
Prof. Jung Jae-hun, of preventive medicine at Gachon University, estimated Korea will ride a wave of Omicron cases for the next two to four months.
“The rapid rise of Omicron cases is expected to last from two to four months,” he wrote on his Facebook account on Thursday. “This period could be the last great wave of this pandemic, and it could be a period that will fundamentally transform our response system to the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, the government tightened its immigration controls in a bid to reduce the number of imported cases.
Health authorities announced Friday that the validity period of the quarantine exemption issued to those who enter Korea for important business purposes will be shortened from the current one month to 14 days from the date of issuance.
In addition, travelers exempted from quarantine will have to undergo both rapid antigen tests and PCR tests.
Currently, people who have been granted exemptions from self-isolation have to receive PCR tests three times: before arrival, immediately after arrival, and the sixth or seventh day after arrival. Starting Monday, they must conduct an additional two rapid antigen tests using self-testing kits and record the results on a mobile application. Testing kits have to be bought individually.
To ease the burden of managing quarantined patients, the government decided to shorten the isolation period for fully vaccinated patients — except for the severely ill — from the current 10 to seven days. This rule will apply nationwide, including the four regions, from next Wednesday.
As of Saturday, Korea had 431 Covid-19 patients in critical condition. A total of 11 peopled died of the virus on Saturday, bringing the total deaths to 6,540 at a 0.89 percent death rate.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]