Mar 29 — 7 am — Continuing on the plateau
Infections:101,757 | Cleared: 93,855 | Under treatment: 6,180 | Deaths: 1,722
(As of Mar 28, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
This week’s average of daily new cases stayed in the low 400s, though a one-day spike on Saturday, which surpassed 500 cases for the first time in a month, is worrisome. About a quarter of the new infections are in people aged 60 and older, and around 70% continue to be detected in the greater Seoul region.
With the number of cases continuing to plateau, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters announced on Friday that the current restrictions, comprising Social Distancing Level 2 for Greater Seoul and Level 1.5 for the rest of the country, plus the prohibition of private gatherings of more than four people, will continue for the next two weeks from March 29 to April 11.
Mar 22 — 6:30am — Continuing with AZ vaccine as planned
Infections: 98,209 | Cleared: 89,949 | Under treatment: 6,567 | Deaths: 1,693
(As of Mar 21, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Last week (March 14–20) the average number of new daily cases stayed above 400 again. But the bigger news was the global debate over whether the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine causes blood clots. The KDCA waited for the European Medicines Agency to announce its approval. Some European countries that had halted the AZ vaccine jabs subsequently resumed their rollout, and the Korean government also confirmed that AZ vaccinations would continue as planned through to the next quarter. On March 24, those aged 65 and older in assisted living facilities will start to be vaccinated. The same day, President Moon Jae-in and the First Lady will be the first to receive the AZ vaccine, partly to allay the public’s vaccine hesitancy.
On March 17, Seoul City’s order for mandatory testing of all foreign workers caused a stir, though the issue did not make the top headlines on the major news outlets. At the protest of foreign embassies that the measures were disproportionate and discriminatory, the city revised its order two days later to require testing for only the foreign workers who work in densely packed or poorly ventilated spaces. The revised order also requires testing for all Korean workers in the same workplaces.
Mar 15—7am—Fighting persistently to prevent another surge
Infections: 95,635 | Cleared: 87,408 | Under treatment: 6,558 | Deaths: 1,669
(As of Mar 14, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
South Korea is continuing with the current social distancing restrictions—Level 2 for the Greater Seoul region, Level 1.5 for the rest of the country, and a four-person limit to private gatherings—for the next two weeks, until March 28. The new proposed 4-tier system will not yet go into effect. A major reason for maintaining the current prevention levels is that the numbers of new cases show no sign of abating, the daily averages being 418 nationwide and 313 in Greater Seoul in the week of March 6–12. Plus, population mobility data shows that more people are getting out and about as the weather turns warmer. By March 12, a cumulative total of 154 cases of the British variant, 21 South African, and 7 Brazilian had been identified. These are in addition to the other variants, from California, New York, and Nigeria, found not just in overseas arrivals but in the community. The variant cases doubled in proportion from 3.4% in January to 6.9% in February. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun described the situation as a close fight to shore up the dam against another surge and said that more persistence will be needed before life returns to normal.
On the vaccine front, 587,884 people have thus far received their first dose of either the AstraZeneca or the Pfizer vaccine. This is a 74.2% vaccination rate among the target demographic of frontline healthcare workers and patients and staff in assisted-living facilities. Since the start of the vaccination rollout on February 26, 74 possible cases of anaphylactic response, seven cases of other severe reactions, and 16 cases of death have been reported. These are being investigated for a causal link to vaccination.
Mar 8—8am—The next phase in Korea’s social distancing
Infections: 92,471 | Cleared: 83,220 | Under treatment: 7,617 | Deaths: 1,634
(As of Mar 7, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new cases this week stayed more or less the same as last week, with the average hovering around 400 per day. By March 7, nearly 310,000 people had received their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and 5,300 the Pfizer. Most reported no serious side effects, but there were eight reported deaths that occurred after vaccination. The government is looking into the exact causes of these deaths.
The latest government briefing yesterday focused on preventing a statistically likely fourth wave by increasing testing, preventing variants from spreading, shoring up medical facilities to cope with over 2,000 cases per day, and enhancing the effectiveness of social distancing. A part of this effort is to yet again restructure the social distancing levels. On March 5, the government held a public hearing to gauge opinion on a draft of a new system. The terms “autonomy and responsibility” seemed to be the keywords in this system, which aims for better sustainability. Recognizing that certain businesses have been suffering under mandatory closures, the government wants to loosen restrictions and give businesses more freedom to self-regulate, while applying harsher penalties for violations. The new system would have four levels instead of the current five and the biggest difference is how those levels would be determined, the new system being based on the weekly average of new cases per 100,000 people. Another major change is to allow up to eight people for private gatherings at Level 2, up to four people for Level 3, and at Level 4 to prohibit meetings of more than two people after 6pm, thereby encouraging everyone to go straight home after work. Businesses like restaurants and gyms may also have to close by 9pm instead of 10pm, since the additional hour of nighttime operation may have increased population mobility and thereby the transmission risk. The details of the new system are likely to change, especially after collecting responses from businesses and the public. The final version is set to go into effect sometime this month.
Mar 1—8am—Vaccine roll out: So far so good
Infections: 89,676 | Cleared: 80,697 | Under treatment: 7,376 | Deaths: 1,603
(As of Feb 28, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The vaccination program finally got underway on February 26 and so far about 20,000 frontline healthcare workers and nursing care patients under age 65 have been vaccinated. A handful of cases of minor side effects have been reported, but so far there don’t seem to have been any major worrisome incidents.
Along with this good news, the average number of new cases in the past week (February 21–27) decreased to 370 per day compared to 455 in the previous week. But on Friday the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters nevertheless announced that the current Social Distancing measures will continue for another two weeks from March 1. The four-person limit on private gatherings will also remain in place. In general, the government is being careful not to loosen up too much as people start to get out and about more in the spring and the new semester starts.