Deaths: 353 | Severely ill: 1,123 | Hospitalized: 1,808 | New cases: 348,952
(Seven-day averages as reported on Mar 27, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The peak of the Omicron wave may finally have passed, as the number of new infections decreased somewhat in the past week. Covid-related deaths and hospitalizations are holding steady, however. In recent weeks, crematoriums, especially in and around Seoul, have not been able to keep up with the rapid rise in deaths, and this has forced hospitals—where funerals are usually conducted—to keep bodies for five days instead of the customary three. On March 22, the government issued a statement urging crematoriums nationwide to operate at full capacity, and hospitals and funeral homes to build more cold storage morgues. Regional governments were also requested to make sure that all funeral homes were accommodating people who died of Covid-19.
Since the Omicron surge began, emergency 119 calls have also increased steeply. According to the latest KDCA report, emergency room admissions of Covid-19 patients increased from 168 on February 8 to 1,796 on March 13. At present, ERs must take the patients into a very limited number of sealed rooms to avoid infecting others, and these patients also tend to stay in the ER 1.8 times as long as others. This has made some hospitals both unable and reluctant to accept Covid-19 patients. The government has indicated that hospitals will receive additional incentives for admitting Covid patients into ERs. The details of these incentives are still to be confirmed.
One piece of good news is that more Covid treatment drugs have arrived. There had been some concerns that the existing supply of Paxlovid would run out soon. However, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety sped up the authorization of the new antiviral drug Lagevrio and acquired an initial 20,000 capsules for use from March 26. The government is expecting to acquire a total of 460,000 doses of antiviral drugs by the end of April.
March 21—9:30pm—Numbers still climbing, strain on hospitals and businesses, eight allowed at private gatherings
Deaths: 290 | Severely ill: 1,126 | Hospitalized: 1,634 | New cases: 402,462
(Seven-day averages as reported on Mar 20, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Covid numbers continued to rise last week, exceeding the peak that had been predicted. On March 17 the number of new cases leaped up to 621,281. The KDCA is attributing this latest increase to the change in policy, since March 14, to accept rapid antigen test results as confirmation of infection, plus transmissions happening in schools as classes resumed for the start of the semester earlier this month. Deaths and hospitalizations have continued to rise as well. Still, the proportion of severely ill people was much lower in February (0.16%) than in January (0.63%), and the same is true for the proportion of people dying with Covid (January 0.31% → February 0.09%).
The government is now predicting that the Omicron wave will hit its peak in a week or two, though they have admitted that it is difficult to say for sure. Because the current wave is climbing higher and lasting longer than expected, the rising number of severe cases has begun to fill up hospital beds and have an impact across the entire healthcare system. Hospitals are concerned that even with beds available it is difficult to maintain a sufficient number of staff, as many of them have been catching the virus as well.
This leads us to the government’s latest decision, announced last Friday, to increase the number of people allowed at private gatherings from six to eight, effective from today until April 3. Operating hours for businesses will remain the same, with most having to close by 11pm. Business owners have been calling for the removal of all remaining restrictions, arguing that they are ineffective at staving off the Omicron wave, as well as being a threat to their livelihoods. Medical professionals, on the other hand, have been critical of the government’s incremental but continued easing of restrictions even as hospitals and their staff have been stretched thin. The resulting half-way restrictions have pleased neither sector.
Also at last Friday’s briefing, the government mentioned that Covid-19’s infectious disease status may be lowered from tier 1 to tier 2 once the peak has passed. This is based on the assessment that the mortality rate is now in the same range as for seasonal flu at 0.05 to 0.1%. Bringing Covid-19 down to tier 2 would mean that quarantine would no longer be mandatory. With Covid patients no longer needing to be quarantined in airtight rooms, this would free up hospital capacity and ease some of the strain on the system.
March 14—8:30pm—End to PCR testing for most cases, quarantine exemption for vaccinated foreign arrivals
Deaths: 205 | Severely ill: 1,059 | Hospitalized: 1,931 | New cases: 300,027
(Seven-day averages as reported on Mar 13, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Covid numbers continued to rise last week, with daily new cases peaking at 383,651 and Covid-related deaths at 269 on March 12. Hospital capacity remains sufficient, though the number of severely ill patients climbed 35.7% and the number of cases in people over the age of 60 rose 55.5% from last week.
From today until April 13, the rules regarding testing have been revised again to allow a rapid antigen test carried out by a medical professional to be the final determination of a positive case of Covid-19. Confirmation of the result with a PCR test is no longer required. Of those who have tested positive with these rapid tests, 94.7% have also received a positive result with a follow-up PCR test, so the KDCA has decided that the second step is unnecessary in most cases. This means PCR test will be reserved for high-risk populations which should shorten the waiting lines at testing centers and reduce the burden of administrative procedures. (It should be noted that this rule change only applies to professionally administered rapid tests, not self-test kits. A positive result from a self-test kit still necessitates a PCR test for confirmation.) Once patients receive a positive rapid test result at an appropriate respiratory clinic or hospital, they must immediately return home to quarantine. Patients aged 60 or older may be given a prescription for Paxlovid, and their contact information will be entered into a database so that they can be contacted and monitored by their public health center. With this new system of testing in place, the number of new cases is expected to climb even faster in the coming weeks. Some experts predict the numbers to peak this week, though recent easing of social distancing requirements, students going back to school, and people gathering at polling stations for the presidential election may result in numbers continuing to rise for a little while longer.
Last Friday, the government also announced that fully vaccinated foreign arrivals will be exempt from quarantine starting March 21. Whether vaccinated in Korea or overseas, as long as their vaccination record is already in the Q-CODE system, inbound travelers will be permitted to skip quarantine and take public transportation from the airport. Additionally, from April 1 anyone arriving in Korea without a Q-CODE record will be able to personally enter their information (negative PCR test result, proof of vaccination, questionnaire on health condition) into the system to be exempt from quarantine. Unless a new potent variant appears, these exemption rules will remain in place indefinitely. They do not apply to people arriving from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Myanmar.
March 7—8:30pm—Managing the presidential election through a Covid peak, no more Covid passes for now
Deaths: 148 | Severely ill: 826 | Hospitalized: 1,708 | New cases: 218,933
(Seven-day averages as reported on Mar 7, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new Covid cases in South Korea reached a high of 266,850 on March 4, raising the average to over 200,000 per day for the week of February 27 to March 5. Covid-related deaths increased by 68% and the number of cases identified in the over 60s also increased by 60% compared to the previous week.
Earlier last week, the KDCA announced that Covid passes will no longer be required for entry to venues or facilities. The rationale behind the decision was that issuing proof of a negative test to serve as a Covid pass for anyone who hadn’t been vaccinated was too much of an administrative load for public clinics, which are currently dealing with an unprecedented number of cases.
The presidential election will be held on March 9, and early voting took place over two days on March 4 and 5. People who were in quarantine due to a positive Covid test were allowed to visit the voting booths an hour before closing. On election day itself, they may turn up to cast their ballot from 6pm until closing time at 7:30pm.