Death toll remains high despite weaker Omicron variant
Korea reported its second-highest daily death toll Tuesday as the country continues to grapple with its deadliest wave yet of the pandemic, despite the dominant Omicron variant's reputation of being less severe.
On Monday, the country counted 114 deaths from Covid-19, an all-time high since the pandemic started.
The daily death toll dropped slightly on Tuesday, to 112, but still recorded the country's second-highest number. Fifty-two of the deaths were of unvaccinated individuals, including one person in their 30s, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
The country reported a total of 541 deaths from Feb. 20 to 26, which is 1.75 times greater than the previous week's 309 deaths. Compared with the figure from three weeks ago, from Jan. 30 to Feb. 5, it rose 3.7 times.
The cumulative deaths in Korea now stand at 8,170. Of these, 1,380 deaths, or 16.8 percent, occurred just over the past month from Jan. 29 to Feb. 28.
Along with the rising fatalities, critical Covid-19 cases are also increasing. As of Tuesday, 727 virus patients were in critical condition and being treated at a hospital, an increase by 12 from the previous day. After passing the 300-mark on Jan. 14, critical cases have soared, staying above the 700s since Monday.
Health authorities have found the Omicron variant to be less severe than the Delta variant. More people have also been vaccinated — with 86.5 percent of the country’s population being fully vaccinated.
The latest surge in critically ill patients and deaths was likely to have been triggered by soaring new infections. As seen by the previous waves of the pandemic, deaths lag behind a rise in case numbers.
However, authorities are particularly worried about the current surge, as it is likely to continue increasing further, fueled by the more transmissible Omicron variant.
On Tuesday, the country reported 138,993 new Covid-19 cases.
In an earlier press briefing on Monday, Jeong Eun-kyeong, the country's top infectious disease expert, forecasted that “Korea’s daily tally will exceed 230,000 and critically ill patients will rise over 1,200” around presidential election day on March 9, citing analysis conducted by domestic and foreign scientists.
The Omicron peak is projected to arrive in early to mid-March, with new cases potentially reaching 180,000 to 350,000 a day, she added.
If 200,000 to 300,000 new Covid-19 cases are reported daily for a week or two, there could be at least 160 deaths a day, given the government-announced Omicron fatality rate of 0.08 percent. But this rate applies only for those who have received a booster shot, and the rate for the unvaccinated remains higher at 0.6 percent, which is five to seven times higher than that of seasonal flu.
"The government saying that it will treat [Covid-19] like the seasonal flu does not mean the threat of the Omicron variant is low, but reflects the situation that there’s no alternative in its medical response capacity,” said Jung Jae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University College of Medicine.
Kim Tak, a professor of infectious disease at Soonchunhyang University Hospital Bucheon, said, "Considering the number of infections and deaths from seasonal influenza, the Covid-19 tally and death toll should be reduced to a daily average of 35,000 and 35 each in order to be considered similar to the flu [in terms of seriousness]."
"It's not over till it's over," said Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious disease at Korea University Guro Hospital. "Two-hundred to 300 deaths may be reported every day in the future."
“The effectiveness of Covid-19 inoculation decreases over time and new variants emerge every three to six months, making it more difficult [to control] than swine flu," Kim said. “Effective antiviral drugs are hard to get prescribed, so [the current wave] needs to be approached cautiously.”
"If Covid-19 remains, there’s a risk that we could continue seeing 10,000 fatalities,” Prof. Kim Tak said.
He added, "If social distancing and mask mandates disappear, respiratory infections, which have practically disappeared during the pandemic, are likely to return, so the government has to consider expanding its medical system in the mid to long term."
BY HWANG SU-YEON, SEO JI-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]