Failing the testing test

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Failing the testing test

 Due to the fast spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, positive cases have surged to more than 20,000 daily from 10,000 a week ago. On Thursday, the last day of the five-day Lunar New Year holiday, the number hit a record 22,907 though Covid-19 tests were halved because of the long holiday. A new Omicron variant, with a transferability 1.5 times more powerful than the existing variant — and hard to distinguish from other variants in PCR tests — has arrived in Korea.

Despite a deepening sense of crisis among the public, the government’s response is disappointing. Public health authorities announced they had designated 1,004 neighborhood hospitals and clinics as places where rapid antigen tests and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are available. But only 343 places offered the tests on Thursday, the first day the new guidelines were implemented.

Even among the 343 hospitals and clinics, only 180 offered rapid antigen tests and only 40 offered both tests. In other words, if a person is tested positive at a clinic where only a rapid antigen test was available, he or she has to look for another clinic to get a confirmation PCR test.

The government did not make public a list of the hospitals and clinics offering tests until Thursday afternoon. If it had provided that information before the holiday began, much confusion could have been avoided.

An increasing number of people are worried about whether they really can get proper treatment if they test positive. A real problem occurs when patients are treated at home in isolation. They must repeatedly check their temperature and the level of oxygen saturation on their own until symptoms worsen. They cannot rely on the touted “swift 3T system” — testing, tracing and treatment — anymore.

The drastic spike in cases was predicted. Jeong Eun-kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), repeatedly warned of the possibility of 20,000 daily cases from mid-December if the Omicron variant became dominant. Yet the government only scared people without real preparations. The commander in chief was no exception. Without saying anything about the alarming proliferation of the Omicron variant during his eight-day trip to the Middle East last month, President Moon Jae-in belatedly ordered a “speedy response” to the pandemic after returning home.

The government plans to announce new social distancing guidelines today. In the meantime, citizens are being pushed into a new age of anxiety. We hope the government can reassure them to relax before it is too late.
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