Oct 30—8:30am—Majority of cases in greater Seoul region, discounts to encourage domestic tourism
Infections: 26,271 | Cleared: 24,168 | Under treatment: 1,641 | Deaths: 462
(As of Oct 29, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported yesterday that close to 70% of all new cases identified during the past two weeks, from October 15 to 28, were found in the greater Seoul region. About 30% of cases nationwide were linked to various community clusters, 30% to hospitals and nursing homes, and the rest were from other sources such as foreign arrivals and secondary transmissions. People should therefore continue to be careful at social gatherings and take extra precautions at medical facilities. The government is also urging caution for several popular neighborhoods and their clubs and bars this Halloween weekend to avoid another outbreak like the one in May at Itaewon.
As a result of the increasing number of cases at hospitals, all medical staff and care giving personnel in nursing homes, senior hospitals, and psychiatric hospitals in the greater Seoul region were tested between October 19 and 25, but fortunately only one positive case was found.
The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters has announced that more discounts will be rolled out this weekend, this time for transportation, accommodation, and restaurants. The aim of this measure is to encourage domestic travel and support the tourism industry with offers such as 30% off packaged tours and ₩40,000 off the price of a hotel room. If there is another sudden surge in Covid-19 cases nationwide, however, the consumption stimulus program may have to be postponed yet again.
Oct 26—7:30am—Trusting the science on the flu vaccine
Infections: 25,836 | Cleared: 23,869 | Under treatment: 1,510 | Deaths: 457
(As of Oct 25, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
We are still riding small waves of Covid-19 cases in South Korea. The number of new cases shot up to 155 on Friday then decreased to 61 by Sunday. The daily average for the past week (October 18 to 24) was 75, up from 62 the previous week (October 11 to 17) and 61 the week before that (October 4 to 10). In general, cases transmitted by community spread and those among foreign arrivals have both increased, which reflects the global rise in coronavirus infections. But a positive sign is that the number of clusters in Korea has decreased from 26 (September 27 to October 10) to 21 (October 11 to 24), and the percentage of cases whose source cannot be identified has also decreased from around 17% to 11% over the same period.
With all the news coverage on the growing number of people who have died after getting this year’s influenza vaccine, and the allegations that the vaccine may have been a contributing factor, the Korean Medical Association advised the government, through a press conference earlier this week, to halt the free vaccine program temporarily. Two local health centers, one in Seoul and another in Pohang, then stopped administering flu vaccines for a few days. However, after reviewing all the deaths, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency concluded that direct causality could not be established. According to the Minister of Health and Welfare at a briefing yesterday, around 3,000 people die each year of influenza, and the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the potential side effects. He entreated the public to trust in the medical experts, because influenza vaccines have been proven to be effective both scientifically and historically. In the absence of a clear causal link between the vaccine and the reported deaths, the government will continue to offer the free flu vaccines, because halting the program temporarily could stoke fears and discourage people from getting vaccinated in the long term. The Korean Vaccine Society also maintains that the reported deaths do not seem to have been directly caused by the vaccine, and that it is critical for the elderly and the immune-compromised to get vaccinated.
Korean Medical Association press briefing, Doctor’s News (Kor)
Statement from the Korean Vaccine Society, KVS (Kor)
Oct 23—7:30am—Distrust in government-distributed influenza vaccine
Infections: 25,543 | Cleared: 23,647 | Under treatment: 1,443 | Deaths: 453
(As of Oct 22, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new cases spiked up to 121 on Thursday (104 from community transmission and 17 from abroad). But the Covid numbers went relatively unnoticed in comparison to issues surrounding the seasonal influenza vaccine.
On Korea’s internet portals, one of the most read news topics throughout the week was about the recent deaths that have occurred following influenza vaccinations. On October 16, a seventeen-year-old died suddenly, two days after having received the government-distributed flu vaccine. The teen had no preexisting conditions, which led some to question if the vaccine could have been the cause. And, according to some news outlets, since this incident there have allegedly been 27 other deaths that occurred after vaccination. Especially because there were already reports of improper handling of flu vaccines in some health centers, such as leaving them at room temperature, the public has been skeptical of this year’s batch of vaccines. The conservative People Power Party (formerly Liberty Korea Party) has taken up the issue, questioning the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KCDA) and, more generally, the Democratic Party and the Moon administration’s handling of the vaccination program.
But it is difficult to prove causation simply based on the order of events. The KCDA is investigating the relationship between the flu vaccine and the deaths, but at this point they do not see any relationship and no reason to stop the vaccine distribution. Specifically in the case of the teenager, a vaccine-related anaphylactic shock would have occured within 30 minutes, rather than two days. The cause of his death remains unknown. The Minister of Health and Welfare answered questions in the National Assembly yesterday on this issue, pointing out that in 2019, there were 204,000 deaths of elderly people over the age of 70, which averages to 560 per day. Of this population about half had received the flu vaccine. Surely not all these deaths can be attributed to the vaccine.
Other medical experts have voiced concerns that news media headlines are stoking “vaccine phobia” and conspiracy theories based on unproven assumptions. This could endanger a lot of people who would have benefited from the vaccine. And, more generally, vaccine avoidance could lead to a dangerous “twindemic” of influenza and Covid-19 spreading simultaneously this winter.
Experts criticize media fearmongering, OhmyNews (Kor)
Oct 19—7:30am—Precautions for nursing homes, discounts at museums and cinemas
Infections: 25,199 | Cleared: 23,312 | Under treatment: 1,443 | Deaths: 444
(As of Oct 18, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
As the world experiences a Covid-19 resurgence, with the total number of cases nearing the 40 million mark, South Korea’s daily numbers remain in double digits. The average number of new cases in the last two weeks (October 4 to 17) was 61.8 per day, down slightly from 66.5 in the previous two weeks (September 20 to October 3). The number of clusters also fell, from 29 to 24, over the same period, as did the percentage of new cases for which the source of infection could not be identified, which fell from 17.4% to 16.5%. However, worrisome clusters in the past week were identified in a senior hospital in Busan (73 cases) and a rehabilitation center in Gwangju (51 cases), both involving patients, medical personnel, and related family members. As testing continues for all the patients, employees, and related people, the number of new cases linked to these clusters is expected to rise. This development has prompted the local governments of the greater Seoul region to conduct precautionary virus testing on all medical staff and caregiving personnel in senior hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, and nursing care facilities.
A few months ago, there were plans in the government’s supplementary budget to stimulate consumer spending and revive the domestic economy by distributing discount coupons for various entertainment facilities. The second wave in August put a stop to those plans, but now the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters is cautiously revisiting the idea, in order to encourage spending. Tickets to museums, art galleries, concerts, movies, and sports arenas will be sold at discounted prices throughout this week and the next. The venues must take all necessary precautions and masks will be compulsory, but so far there don’t seem to be guidelines available on crowd density. Traveling is still discouraged, so this round of discounts won’t apply to transportation or accommodation, and restaurants are also excluded.
Virus testing for workers in nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals, Yonhap News (Kor)
Oct 16—7:30am—Precautions for the hiking season, spectators allowed back in sports arenas
Infections: 24,988 | Cleared: 23,082 | Under treatment: 1,467 | Deaths: 439
(As of Oct 15, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of daily positive cases jumped up on Monday and has stayed around 100 all week. The transmission of these cases would have occurred about a week earlier, but the timing of the increase in numbers is not ideal considering that the social distancing level was just lowered on Monday.
As fall foliage descends, hikers are flocking to Korea’s many mountains and national parks. It is also the high season for group hiking tours in rental buses. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters is taking extra precautions this year and has designated October 17 to November 11 a special period with additional restrictions in order to prevent transmissions among travelers. During this period, group tours should take meticulous attendance and travelers will not be allowed to consume food or drinks in buses. Group tours sometimes include some singing and dancing on the bus, but now such actions are strictly prohibited. Extra government personnel will be stationed in the parks to ensure social distancing and facility disinfection. People are generally being encouraged to stay home and refrain from outings this year.
Good news for both sports fans and sports teams, however: professional sports games will start admitting spectators up to 30% of the stadium capacity. Assuming the pandemic remains under control, the arenas may be permitted to fill half the seats by November. Spectators would have to check in, wear masks, stay in their alternately assigned seats, and would be prohibited from consuming food or drinks or vocally cheering for their teams. Clapping and waving, I assume, will be allowed.
Oct 12—9am—Social distancing down to Level 1, and backward tracing in Korea
Infections: 24,606 | Cleared: 22,693 | Under treatment: 1,481 | Deaths: 432
(As of Oct 11, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Based on the clear decline in the number of new cases in recent weeks, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters announced yesterday that the nationwide social distancing measures will be readjusted down to Level 1 from today. The number of new cases has fallen to around 60 per day in the last two weeks (September 27 to October 10). The officials also reported that the political rallies that took place over the past two weekends were well managed and, despite more than 30 million people traveling domestically over the holidays, mass transmission of coronavirus seems to have been averted. Risks are still present, however, given that new clusters are continuing to appear in medical facilities and nursing homes in the greater Seoul region. The percentage of patients whose transmission routes are unknown has risen slightly from 18.6% (September 13 to 26) to 19% (September 27 to October 10). However, the economic difficulties faced by businesses are being taken into consideration and restrictions will be eased, albeit with lots of caveats.
Door-to-door sales businesses nationwide must remain closed, but other high-risk facilities such as buffet restaurants, hagwons, and nightclubs may now open for business while following the regulations for distancing and hygiene. Masks are mandatory on public transportation, at mass rallies, and in medical facilities. The rules limiting gatherings to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors no longer apply, though masks and distancing (4 square meters per person) are still advised. Social service facilities and community centers can resume normal operations, which will be a relief to families needing care for children, the elderly, and the disabled.
Additional regulations remain in place for the greater Seoul region, where restaurants, cafes, and bakeries larger than 150 square meters must maintain a 1-meter distance between tables, provide alternate seating, or set up dividers. Churches may gather for official weekly services with up to 30% capacity, and this proportion could gradually increase as leaders continue discussions with the government. Other informal church-related gatherings are still prohibited.
The Ministry of Education also announced that schools may start to conduct in-person classes for two-thirds of the pupils at one time. In the greater Seoul region the two-thirds capacity limit should be strictly applied, though the rest of the regions may be more flexible depending on the school size. Schools may determine whether to operate morning and afternoon classes for different grades.
On another note, a recent article in the The Atlantic explored the idea that Covid-19’s pattern of transmission appears to be different from the predictable nature of the common flu, propagating instead through random super-spreading events, often in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces. Since it is more likely to spread in clusters, it would seem that, rather than tracing the people who came in contact with a patient after they had been infected (or “forward tracing”), a more effective way of identifying those clusters and slowing down the spread of the disease would be to trace backwards to find out where the index person was infected.
South Korea and Japan have been contact tracing both backward and forward, and asking people to avoid enclosed and poorly ventilated spaces, for a while now. One key indicator the Korean government has been monitoring is the percentage of new cases for which they have not yet identified the source of infection (currently at 19%). Another number is the percentage of people who have already been identified as a contact of a known patient when they receive a positive test result (the goal is to increase this to over 80%). These people should already be under self-isolation and quarantine, slowing down the outbreak and making forward tracing much easier.
This Overlooked Variable Is the Key to the Pandemic, The Atlantic (Eng)
Oct 9 — 7am — Hoping for an uneventful weekend
Infections: 24,422 | Cleared: 22,463 | Under treatment: 1,532 | Deaths: 427
(As of Oct 8, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of newly identified cases each day did not exceed 100 this week, except on Wednesday, which saw 114 new cases. If the numbers stay low, there will have been no major transmission events during the Chuseok holidays. And if no further clusters break out this weekend, the two-week special virus prevention period will end on October 11 as planned.
Another right-wing rally is due to be held this weekend in the center of Seoul. The organizers are expecting about 2000 people to participate. The police have prohibited the gathering and will again barricade Gwanghwamun Square. The Seoul Administrative Court has ruled in favor of the police, given the risk of virus outbreaks.
Court ruled against gathering for rally, The Hankyoreh (Kor)
Oct 5 — 7am — Quiet holidays, and new mask-or-pay regulations
Infections: 24,091 | Cleared: 21,845 | Under treatment: 1,825 | Deaths: 421
(As of Oct 4, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The first week of the “special virus prevention period” went by without a big spike in the number of daily new cases, which stayed under 100 for the last four days and averaged 66.5 over the last two weeks (September 20 to October 3), down from an average of 121 in the previous two-week period (September 6 to 19). The low numbers are partly due to fewer people getting tested during the holidays. It is yet unclear how much of the population went on the road in the past week, and whether that resulted in increased spread of Covid-19. The effects will become more apparent in the next two weeks.
Right-wing groups held their planned rallies, both in person and in the form of car parades, on October 3. The courts allowed single-person protests and car parade rallies of fewer than ten vehicles. The police on their part set up 90 checkpoints throughout Seoul and barricaded Gwanghwamun Square completely with police buses. On Saturday, the protesters drove through Seoul neighborhoods and Gwanghwamun Square, their cars emblazoned with slogans, but did not stop to get out. Small groups of protestors gathered to read their statements and chant slogans. None of these gatherings resulted in major conflicts with the police.
The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) have announced a new regulation, which will make the wearing of face masks in certain situations obligatory at the risk of a monetary penalty of up to ₩10,000. The recently revised Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act allows these agencies and local government authorities to require the use of face masks and enforce penalties for a limited duration. The specifics will vary, depending on the social distancing level for each region, on whether masks will be enforced for high-risk facilities (Level 1) or medium-risk facilities (Level 2). On public transportation, at protest rallies, and in nursing care facilities masks will be required regardless of the social distancing level. The masks should ideally be ones approved by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, but any single-use masks or cloth masks are also acceptable. Mesh or valve masks, and scarves don’t count, and masks should properly cover the nose and mouth. Exceptions to the rule are children under 14, people with disabilities, and others with a relevant certification of their medical condition. There are grey areas, however. Masks may be taken off while consuming food and drinks, swimming, brushing teeth, receiving medical treatments, translating in sign language, taking pictures, or to prove one’s identity. Performers for theater, television, and online programming are also exempt, as are athletes and musicians. At weddings, the bride and groom and their parents are also not required to wear masks. The new rules will go into effect on October 13 but will be applied with some leniency in the first month.