January 31—22:45pm—New Omicron response system applied nationwide, further court ruling on the Covid pass
Deaths: 27 | Severely ill: 346 | Hospitalized: 921 | New cases: 13,536
(Seven-day averages as reported on Jan 30, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
While the number of new positive cases broke through the 10,000 mark last week, reaching a high of 17,532 yesterday, the average number of severely ill patients in hospital continued to fall. Hospital bed occupancy rates for severe cases have also stayed low. However, as the number of patients with mild or no symptoms has increased, facilities such as quarantine centers catering for the less severe cases have seen a rise in numbers. In general though, these indicators seem under control for now as the Omicron wave begins to sweep through.
The KDCA announced on Friday, January 28, that the new Covid-19 response strategy that was piloted in a few regions last week will go into effect nationwide on February 3. Under the new system, PCR tests will be reserved for those most at risk of developing severe symptoms (people over age 60, close contacts of identified patients, employees at assisted living facilities, new arrivals from other countries, and others referred by doctors due to preexisting conditions, plus a few other categories). People who test positive but have mild or no symptoms will be prescribed will be prescribed an antiviral drug and monitored at home through periodic calls from general or public hospitals that operate 24 hours a day.
Others younger than 60 and less at risk can only get a rapid antigen test in the first instance, either at a testing center, respiratory clinic, or designated neighborhood hospital. If the result is positive then they can take a PCR test at the same facility to confirm the result. If a patient is identified at a respiratory clinic or a hospital then the doctor can immediately diagnose and prescribe treatment, after which the patient will be sent home and monitored through regular phone calls, either from the same doctor, or a consortium of doctors on rotating shifts. There are 431 government-funded respiratory clinics nationwide and these clinics have separate, designated areas for treating Covid-19 patients. The government is expecting about 1,000 more private hospitals and clinics to share this task. The list of these hospitals will be finalized by February 2 and will be identifiable on maps via Korean web portals.
January 27 saw another court ruling on Covid passes. This time, the decision by a Seoul administrative court confirmed the continued necessity of Covid passes for restaurants, cafes, karaoke rooms, indoor fitness centers, internet cafes, and public bath houses. For now, that means only libraries, study cafes, hagwons, malls, and supermarkets or stores larger than 3,000 square meters can be visited without a pass. Children aged 12 to 18 remain exempt from all Covid pass requirements.
January 24—7:15pm—Omicron cases on the rise, quarantine reduced to seven days
Deaths: 32 | Severely ill: 491 | Hospitalized: 630 | New cases: 5,962
(Seven-day averages as reported on Jan 23, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new Covid-19 cases continued to rise this week from 3,857 on Monday to 7,009 on Saturday. In the week of January 15 to 21, 47.1% of newly identified cases were of the Omicron variant. South Korea is getting close to the threshold for switching to the new testing and tracing strategy in response to the new fast-moving variant. Starting January 26, the new system will be tried out first in Gwangju (South Jeolla Province), Pyeongtaek, and Anseong, where Omicron has already become the dominant strain. In these regions PCR tests will be reserved only for the most vulnerable (people over 60, close contacts of positive cases, and those who test positive with the rapid test kit). Tracing will also be limited to those defined as close contacts rather than anyone who just happened to cross paths briefly with the identified patient.
Also starting January 26, and applicable nationwide, the at-home quarantine period will be reduced from ten to seven days for asymptomatic patients and close contacts who have been vaccinated and boosted.
January 17—6:45pm—Preparing for Omicron
Deaths: 39 | Severely ill: 701 | Hospitalized: 437 | New cases: 3,971
(Seven-day averages as reported on Jan 16, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The daily numbers of new cases have decreased some more in the past week and the availability of hospital beds remains sufficient for now. But cases of the Omicron variant have been doubling every two weeks. By early February Omicron is expected to become the dominant variant in South Korea. So, while there have been complaints and protests from businesses, most of the current Covid prevention regulations are set to continue for the next three weeks, until February 6, which will cover the Lunar New Year holidays (January 31 to February 2). One change to the rules is that now up to six people may convene in private gatherings, which previously allowed only four.
The KDCA also announced a new response strategy on Friday. Once the average number of new cases rises above 7,000 per day, as it is expected to do, due to the fast-moving variant, the KDCA will shift its focus from the 3Ts (test, trace, treat) to protecting the most vulnerable. The PCR tests, which are currently available free of charge to anyone who needs them, will be reserved for the most at risk while the rapid antigen test kits will be made more widely available. Tracing of contacts will also depend more on self-reporting, and the quarantine period for close contacts and asymptomatic cases will be reduced from ten days to seven. A second vaccine booster shot is also being considered.
On the issue of the Covid pass, earlier this week a Seoul administrative court ruled that passes would not be required in the city for supermarkets and malls that are 3,000 square meters or larger. The court also ruled that minors aged 12 to 18 should be exempt from showing a pass at any facility, not just hagwons or libraries. These exceptions for Seoul residents were causing some confusion and prompting complaints. The government therefore announced today that a pass will not be required for museums, cinemas, malls, large markets, libraries, or hagwons nationwide, since there is no reason to take off masks in these places.
January 10—7pm—Number of cases falling, exemptions to vaccine passport
Deaths: 49 | Severely ill: 903 | Hospitalized: 415 | New cases: 3,376
(Seven-day averages as reported on Jan 09, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
In the week of January 2 to 8, the average number of new cases per day continued to fall, as did the number of severely ill patients. Just over half (56.9%) of ICU beds for Covid patients remain occupied. Over 80% of people aged 60 and older have now had their booster shots and 77.1% of minors aged 13 to 18 have had their first vaccine doses.
Libraries, study cafes, and hagwons in the capital have been granted exemption from requiring the vaccine pass by a Seoul administrative court which ruled in favor of the rights of the unvaccinated. These are spaces that young people and students frequent, and the ruling comes after parents reluctant to vaccinate their children had been protesting the application of the vaccine pass to minors. There is potential for this case to set a precedent for other kinds of businesses, sabotaging the whole effort.
January 3—7pm—Two more weeks of current restrictions
Deaths: 64 | Severely ill: 1,086 | Hospitalized: 506 | New cases: 4,579
(Seven-day averages as reported on Jan 02, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Overall, the situation in South Korea seems much better than two weeks ago. The average number of new cases per day has decreased by a few thousand while more Covid-19 treatment beds have been made available. Thanks to this, only 60% of ICU beds and 50% of regular Covid patient beds are currently occupied. The booster vaccination rate has risen to 35.9% of the population, and first-dose vaccination of minors aged 12 to 17 has also reached over 75%. But the number of severely ill patients is still over a thousand, and the Omicron variant is spreading quickly (894 cases by December 31). On December 31 the government announced that the current set of restrictions (vaccinated 4-person limits to private gatherings, 9pm closing for restaurants and cafes, etc) will continue for another two weeks until January 16. This week supermarkets and malls have been added to the list of places where one needs a vaccine passport or a negative PCR test to enter. The plan to include minors in the vaccine passport system from February was postponed to March 1 to give them more time to get vaccinated.