After short-lived freedom, Korea rolls back social distancing

After short-lived freedom, Korea rolls back social distancing
Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-cheol told Friday’s briefing a record surge in hospitalizations has forced Korea to pause its return to normal plans. (Ministry of Health and Welfare)

South Korea on Friday said it would reinstate some of the mitigation measures that ended a month ago in line with the plans for a phased return to normal, as a record rise in infections is straining hospitals.

Korea counted 4,944 new daily cases after two consecutive days of over-5,000 — the two highest amounts recorded in a day. The intensive care bed occupancy rate neared 80 percent nationwide by Thursday afternoon, while 902 patients were waiting to be assigned a bed for more than 24 hours. About half of them had waited for longer than four days, and 444 were over 70 years old.

Widened vaccine pass, return of gathering limits

The use of the vaccine pass or “COVID-19 control pass,” which so far has been limited to risky venues such as indoor gyms, will be extended to everyday places. From next week, proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test result will be required to enter places such as food outlets, theaters, libraries, massage parlors and museums.

The vaccine pass also comes with a six-month expiry date. Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said last week that fully vaccinated will now mean three doses.

Children ages 12 to 17, who are exempt from the health pass system, will also be asked to present proof of being fully vaccinated or negative in a PCR test starting February next year. Korea opened vaccinations for older adolescents in mid-October.

Back in October health authorities said the benefits of vaccinations “do not far outweigh the potential risks” for healthy children, but the worsening outbreak has turned the equation “more in favor of vaccination,” Dr. Eun Byung-wook, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Nowon Eulji University Hospital, said in a phone call.

Five days ago Korea saw its first child death from COVID-19. The 5-year-old, who arrived dead at a Gyeonggi Province hospital emergency room, had chronic neurological conditions, according to sources familiar with the matter.

A tight cap on the size of private gatherings is also being reintroduced Monday, initially set to last for four weeks.

In Seoul and the surrounding areas of Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, where the outbreak is worst, up to six people can meet at a time. In the rest of the country, up to eight can gather.

Expansion of home isolation

Since Nov. 26, Korea has made home isolation the default for all COVID-19 patients — including those older than 70 and pregnant women — unless they become seriously sick, amid the situation with crowded hospitals.

Ministry spokesperson Son Young-rae said in the same briefing that home care would be “even more widely prescribed,” as the majority of COVID-19 patients only have mild or no symptoms.

“Home care will continue to be expanded, even more so than now,” he said. He added that compared to other countries, Korea is still providing high levels of medical care to COVID-19 patients.

Son added that safety monitoring will be strengthened. Over the first three weeks of November, at least six patients died at home while waiting to be transferred to a hospital.

Doctors have voiced concerns about placing patients under home isolation indiscriminately.

Dr. Eom Joong-sik, an infectious disease specialist at Gachon University Medical Center, said he “disapproved of” having patients aged 70 and above recover from home. “For older adults home recovery is not safe, even if they are fully vaccinated and only minimally symptomatic at the time of diagnosis.”

He said that home care “should have been applied gradually, from younger people who aren’t at high risk of severe disease.” “Home care cannot be a substitute for bed shortages,” he said.

As patients in home care as well as other people in the same household can leave isolation to visit clinics or for other essential purposes, that also raises the risk of exposure, said Dr. Jung Ki-suck, a respiratory disease specialist and former Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief.

“If patients are allowed to leave their place of isolation while still infectious, people whom they may come across are exposed to risk of infection.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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