New Covid testing system gets off to chaotic start
On Thursday, the government switched to an Omicron-tailored system that reserves free polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for people over 60 or in high-risk groups, and offers rapid antigen tests to all others.
Some 700 local clinics and hospitals across the nation were supposed be ready to offer Covid-19 testing and treatment. In reality, only a handful were ready, causing chaos and disgruntlement among people wondering if they were sick.
Ms. Lee, a 29-year-old from Goyang, Gyeonggi, called two neighborhood hospitals to get herself tested. The hospitals told her that they were not ready yet.
She eventually found a Covid-19 screening site near Hwajeong Station in Goyang's Deogyang District at around 9: 30 a.m. but stood in line for over an hour in the cold. Finally she got a rapid antigen test.
These Covid-19 testing centers offer free rapid antigen tests for the general public and PCR tests for people over 60 or in high risk groups, as well as those who first test positive in the rapid antigen test.
In many screening sites in Seoul and Gyeonggi, the lines for the rapid antigen tests, monitored by staff, were longer than those for the PCR tests.
Many staff at testing centers got bogged down explaining the new testing scheme to people used to the free PCR tests offered at district offices and screening sites throughout the pandemic.
Earlier, officials said that 391 clinics specializing in respiratory illnesses and another 343 small neighborhood hospitals and clinics nationwide would begin testing and treating Covid-19 patients Thursday.
However, the official Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service (HIRA) website revealed the available hospital and clinic list around Thursday noon. Only 208 neighborhood hospitals and clinics were available, according to the site.
There were just 19 hospitals and clinics participating in Covid-19 testing in Seoul and 17 in Gyeonggi.
One reason for the chaos appears to be that the Korea Medical Association (KMA) was supposed to receive applications for respiratory clinics to perform rapid antigen testing from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1, but the data was not properly collected over the Lunar New Year holiday.
Furthermore, as the plan was confirmed just before the long holiday, the rapid antigen test kits and protective equipment such as face shields and gowns were not delivered to hospitals and clinics in time. Delivery companies were not operating over the holiday period, according to the KMA.
The government announced its new Covid-19 testing and treatment scheme on Jan. 26 to prepare for an exponential spike in patients due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Possibly due to the large number of users, the HIRA website was also temporarily unavailable at one point.
The country reported 22,907 Covd-19 virus infections Thursday, including 22,773 local transmissions, raising total cases to 907,214, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). This broke the previous record of 20,270 cases on Wednesday.
The Seoul city government said that a record 5,218 cases were reported on Thursday, up from 4,209 the previous day.
There were 25 additional fatalities reported, according to the KDCA, raising the total death toll to 6,812.
Critically ill patients were 274, down four from the previous day.
Patients receiving at-home treatment rose by 7,716 from the previous day to a total of 97,136.
Health authorities said that there were fewer critically ill patients over 60, compared to when Delta was the dominant variant.
Lee Chang-jun, director general for health and medical policy,said Thursday, "It is important for local medical institutions to accumulate experience in diagnosing and treating Covid-19, so we decided that it would be better to start the implementation [of the new testing scheme] earlier."
Health authorities said Wednesday that a total of 1,004 medical institutions including respiratory clinics have agreed to participate in Covid-19 diagnostic testing and treatment. This number, they said, increased to 1,018 as of Thursday.
BY SARAH KIM, SHIN SUNG-SIK [firstname.lastname@example.org]