February 28—8:30pm—Household contacts no longer required to quarantine, peak of wave expected mid-March
Deaths: 77 | Severely ill: 573 | Hospitalized: 1,766 | New cases: 147,431
(Seven-day averages as reported on Feb 27, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The average number of new cases continued to rise last week, almost doubling compared to the previous week, and the other indicators followed accordingly. There were no big changes in the proportion of cases across the different age groups, with 13.3% of all cases seen in the over 60s, and 26.4% in those aged 18 and under.
The prime minister announced on Friday, February 25, that the Omicron response strategy would be revised, effective from March 1. Due to the rapid increase in cases, public clinics have been struggling to keep up with the contacting and monitoring of both patients and close contacts. So the new rules no longer require cohabitants of Covid patients to quarantine, regardless of their vaccination status. They are only advised (not required) to take a PCR test within the first three days of identifying the Covid patient in the household, and to then take a rapid antigen test on the seventh day. But as the new school semester starts in March, this new system will be delayed for families of school-aged children and teachers until March 14 to give schools time to adjust. Schools will also handle some of the testing and tracing duties for students and teachers with the government-distributed rapid test kits and PCR testing, partly to relieve the strain on public clinics. Public clinics will be sent 4,000 extra pairs of hands (3,000 civil servants and 1,000 military servicemen) to support patient identification and management. The prime minister also announced that this Omicron wave is expected to peak by mid-March at around 250,000 daily cases.
February 21—9:30pm—Daily case numbers hit 100,000, business opening hours extended to 10pm
Deaths: 46 | Severely ill:364 | Hospitalized: 1,455 | New cases: 87,458
(Seven-day averages as reported on Feb 20, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new cases reached over 100,000 per day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday last week. The rate of deaths and the number of severely ill patients have also started to rise following the steep increase in cases.
On Friday the government announced their decision to ease social distancing measures slightly and let businesses stay open an hour later, until 10pm, effective from Saturday February 19 to Sunday March 13. Given that Omicron appears to cause much less severe symptoms than previous variants, there has been pressure from the business sector to reduce curfews and limits to private gatherings. Small businesses, such as restaurants and nightclubs, have been hard hit during the pandemic. Infectious disease experts and the KDCA have been more conservative in their analysis, however, since the Omicron wave has yet to peak in South Korea. They have cautioned that a hasty easing of restrictions could overwhelm the medical response capacity. But they do expect the wave to peak before mid-March, after which the remaining restrictions will be eased gradually.
The government has also decided to stop requiring check-ins at public venues—through QR codes on smartphones, calling in by phone, or writing down personal contact information on arrival. In the new Omicron response strategy this data is no longer necessary for contact tracing, which will instead rely on people self-reporting their movements and contacts. The Covid pass (proof of vaccination or a negative test result) will still need to be shown when entering many businesses and can be verified through a QR code or other proof of vaccination, so the QR code is not going away any time soon.
February 14—7:45pm—Weathering the Omicron variant at home
Deaths: 29 | Severely ill: 277 | Hospitalized: 1,417 | New cases: 48,708
(Seven-day averages as reported on Feb 13, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
In a much sharper increase than predicted, new Covid-19 cases in South Korea have exceeded 50,000 for the past four consecutive days. But the number of severely ill patients is staying steady, in the 200s, and the number of people dying also remains low.
Some revisions have been made to the Omicron response strategy and these went into effect on February 10. According to the new rules, all patients, including those in higher-risk groups (over 60 years of age, 50 and over with pre-existing conditions, or those with immune deficiency), must now weather the virus at home unless the symptoms progress to severe levels. Higher-risk patients are provided with a home treatment kit (thermometer, oximeter, fever reducing medicine, rubbing alcohol, and rapid antigen tests). They need to record their temperature, oxygen saturation levels, etc, twice a day using a smartphone app designed for medical support. If necessary they may be connected to a doctor to discuss symptoms by phone or visit a designated treatment hospital and be prescribed a Covid treatment drug. Low-risk patients are advised to monitor symptoms on their own as they stay home, rest, and take paracetamol—much like one would respond to the common flu. If necessary, they can call a designated Covid treatment hospital or a respiratory clinic to talk with a doctor and get a prescription, though Covid treatment drugs like Paxlovid are reserved for higher-risk patients. They may have the prescribed medicine delivered from a pharmacy or have someone else purchase it for them. All patients must quarantine for seven days. People who live in the same household must also quarantine for seven days if they have not been fully vaccinated.
There are concerns that the stock of rapid antigen tests is quickly running out. So, starting today, the test kits will no longer be sold online. They will continue to be sold in pharmacies. Free test kits will be distributed to children’s day care centers and social service centers for the elderly.
February 7—8pm—Steep rise in cases, holding steady on social distancing
Deaths: 20 | Severely ill: 271 | Hospitalized: 1,250 | New cases: 25,867
(Seven-day averages as reported on Feb 6, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
In the week of January 31 to February 6 the number of new cases rose sharply, hitting a new high of 38,691 on Sunday. But the number of severely ill patients has continued to fall.
The new strategy for responding to the Omicron variant began last week, and the list of Covid-19 treatment clinics has been available on the Ministry of Health and Welfare website since February 3. The response system for at-home monitoring and treatment will have to be operating in top shape by the time this wave is expected to peak, at over 100,000 new cases per day, toward the end of February.
The government announced on Friday, February 4, that the current social distancing rules will be extended until February 20. That means the early closing times for businesses, limits to private gatherings, and Covid passes for some businesses will continue in order to respond to the threat of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
Meanwhile, the vaccination rate sits at 86.0% for the standard two shots and 54.9% for the booster shot, similar to recent weeks.