Feb 22—8 am—A new social distancing scheme previewed, vaccinations to start this week
Infections: 86,992| Cleared: 77,516 | Under treatment: 7,919 | Deaths: 1,557
(As of Feb 21, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
A little less than a week ago, on February 15, President Moon Jae-in announced that the government was planning to move to a new social distancing system that would give more autonomy to individuals and businesses while holding violators more responsible. Part of this new scheme involves scrapping the five-level system that was implemented back in November and returning to just three levels of restrictions. The rationale behind this is to ease pandemic fatigue and assist the small businesses that have so far been prohibited or restricted in their operations. Businesses that violate social distancing regulations, however, will be subject to a “one strike and you’re out” rule. It’s as yet unclear what will happen to the four-person limit on (non-family) private gatherings.
But this announcement came before the increase in the number of new cases this week. Between February 14 and 20 there were 455 new cases each day on average, up from just 353 the previous week—possibly an aftereffect of the holiday weekend two weeks ago. There has been speculation that the social distancing level might again be raised if the trend continues. So the implementation of the new system will depend on the case numbers over the next week or two.
Meanwhile, vaccine distribution will finally start this week, on February 26. A total of 360,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine will be administered to medical workers and patients in nursing homes, medical facilities, and hospitals that treat Covid-19 patients. Of the prospective candidates in this first round, 94% responded that they are willing to take the vaccine, despite some doubts about the vaccine’s effectiveness. The catch, though, is that the government has decided to hold off vaccinating people 65 years or older, determining that there is not enough evidence yet of its effectiveness in the elderly. Part of the reasoning is that if and when the elderly with pre-existing conditions die after getting the vaccine, it will generate bad press and doubts about the entire vaccination process, even if the deaths are not directly caused by the vaccine. So the 94% willing response doesn’t include this elderly demographic, and it is unclear how many of them would take the vaccine this round if they had the choice.
A further 11,7000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are also scheduled to arrive on February 26 through the COVAX facility. These vaccines will be administered to the frontline medical workers treating Covid-19 patients.
AstraZeneca vaccines should roll out on Feb 26 , YTN (Kor)
Pfizer vaccines are scheduled to arrive on Feb 26 , CBS NoCutNews (Kor)
Feb 15—7:30 am—Social distancing levels eased
Infections: 83,525 | Cleared: 73,559 | Under treatment: 8,444 | Deaths: 1,522
(As of Feb 14, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The past week saw another small decrease in the number of new cases. The average nationwide fell to 353 (282 in Greater Seoul) for the week of February 7–13. The numbers are now low enough that the social distancing restrictions can be eased, so starting today Level 1.5 will apply nationwide and Level 2 in the greater Seoul area. Specifically, this means that cinemas, PC cafes, arcades, hagwons, study rooms, and theme parks may operate without limits on their opening hours. Restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms, karaoke rooms, door-to-door sales promotion headquarters, party rooms, and indoor music venues in Greater Seoul may operate until 10pm, while in the rest of the country these businesses (except sales promotion headquarters) may operate without time limits. Another big change is that night clubs and bars may now open for business until 10pm in Greater Seoul, and through the night in the rest of the country. Sporting events are permitted to fill a maximum of 10% of seating in Greater Seoul and up to 30% in the rest of the country. Weddings and funerals may now be attended by more people: 100 people in the capital area and 500 in other regions. Events with 500 or more attendees may be permitted if they report to the local government and negotiate in advance. Informal gatherings, communal meals, and boarding are still prohibited in all places of worship, but formal weekly services are allowed to fill 20% of seating capacity in Greater Seoul and 30% in other regions.
The four-person limit to private gatherings will stay in effect, though family gatherings of more than four people are now allowed.
These levels will apply for the next two weeks, unless any regions see a sudden increase in transmission.
Feb 8 — 9 am — One hour more for businesses outside Greater Seoul, forecast of fourth wave
Infections: 80,896 | Cleared: 70,865 | Under treatment: 8,560 | Deaths: 1,471
(As of Feb 7, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
This week, the average number of new cases each day fell to 355, from 424 the week before, and new cases in people over the age of 65 also decreased slightly from 113 to 101. Considering the falling number of cases in regions outside the greater Seoul area, as well as the hardships that businesses are facing, the government has decided to ease the restriction on opening hours for businesses. From midnight on February 8, restaurants, cafes, gyms, karaoke rooms, and other businesses in regions other than Greater Seoul may operate an hour longer, until 10pm. The official social distancing levels plus the four-person gathering limit will stay the same, in view of the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays and the start of the new school semester in March.
New Covid-19 variants have been found in 51 cases so far. All of these have been in foreign arrivals and were identified during quarantine. But experts say it is only a matter of time until the variant strands spread in the community. Some are warning of a fourth wave to come sometime in mid March and April, based on the shortening duration between each peak. If the daily average stays between 200 and 500, as it is now, a fourth wave could raise the daily average into the 2000s. And as the projection does not take the variants into account, the situation could get much worse.
Still, tighter social and economic restrictions, or even maintaining the current level of distancing, are also considered by many in the government and the health sector to be unsustainable. Some solutions would be to prepare more ICU beds, medical facilities, and pandemic response personnel well in advance, and to compensate better for unemployment and business losses.
A fourth wave in March could mean new cases in the 2000s, Joongang Ilbo (Kor)
Experts discuss social distancing system reform toward better sustainability , Yonhap News (Kor)
Feb 1 — 6:30am — Staying home for yet another holiday
Infections: 78,205 | Cleared: 67,878 | Under treatment: 8,907 | Deaths: 1,420
(As of Jan 31, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Korea’s Covid-19 prevention measures are reviewed every fortnight. Two weeks ago, there had been some speculation that the social distancing measures would be eased thanks to the dipping numbers, but these started to rise again last week. The average number of daily new cases in the past week (January 24–30) rose to 424 from 384 the week before, partly due to major clusters being identified in several private Christian boarding academies. The unregistered schools, run by a Korean organization called International Mission (IM), continued to operate dormitories with shared facilities throughout last year. So far, 184 related cases in students, faculty members, church contacts, and others have been identified. Besides these transmission clusters, there was also an increase in population movement in the last two weeks according to cell phone GPS data, making it difficult to determine if there has been a meaningful improvement in numbers.
All this has amounted to an extension of the current restrictions—social distancing Level 2.5 for Greater Seoul, Level 2 for the rest of the country, and no private gatherings of more than four people. The measures will remain in place for the next two weeks, until February 14, encompassing the Lunar New Year Holidays on the weekend of February 12–14. The four-person limit effectively makes large family gatherings difficult, which should encourage people to stay home for the holidays. Restrictions on businesses and other facilities will also stay the same.