As omicron becoming dominant, Korea prepares new measures

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As omicron becoming dominant, Korea prepares new measures
Rodeo Street in Anjeong-ri in front of Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi-do is quite on Thursday as infection is fast spreading around US military units. (Yonhap)

As the omicron variant spreads rapidly and daily caseloads exceed 7,000 for a second consecutive day, the government plans to operate a new quarantine system nationwide.

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As of Saturday midnight, the number of COVID-19 confirmed patients in Korea increased by 7,630 from the previous day, recording the second-largest figure to date. Of the newly confirmed cases, 7,343 were locally transmitted and 287 imported.

The number of critically ill patients was 431, down two from the previous day, and in the 400 range for the fourth straight day. The number of deaths increased by 11 to a cumulative 6,540.

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Daily case counts on weekends have tended to be smaller due to fewer tests being taken, but the spread of the omicron variant has led to an apparent increase, regardless of the day of the week. Among confirmed COVID-19 patients in Korea from Jan. 16-19, 47.1 percent were infected with the omicron variant.

Looking at the trend of spread, the omicron infection rate in the third week of January, which will be announced on Monday, is expected to exceed 50 percent and reach 80 to 90 percent after the Lunar New Year holiday. The omicron infection rate among confirmed cases from overseas was already 94.7 percent last week.

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Experts say the omicron pandemic has already begun. Shin Sang-yeop, an infectious disease specialist, said, “It is right to say that the pandemic of the omicron has begun now. The domination of the omicron variant is unstoppable.”

The government plans to change the COVID-19 quarantine system to the “omicron response stage.” It sees that if the caseloads grow out of control and tens of thousands of confirmed cases are found per day, the current measure will face limits.

The quarantine period for those who have completed vaccination will be shortened to seven days from the current 10 days from Jan. 26. The target of COVID-19 “edible treatments” will be expanded from 65 years old to 60 years old from Sunday.

Also from Jan. 26, new measures will be applied first in four regions, including Gwangju, South Jeolla Province, Pyeongtaek and Anseong, where the omicron variant has already become the dominant strain.

When the omicron measures are applied, Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR, tests will only be used for high-risk groups, such as close contacts and those aged 60 and older. Patients with mild symptoms will receive outpatient treatment and prescriptions at local hospitals and clinics and undergo home treatment. Ambulances will mainly be provided to severely-ill patients, and asymptomatic and mild patients will be asked to make visits to medical institutions using their own cars or quarantine taxis.

The quarantine authorities and experts predict that the number of confirmed cases will exceed 10,000 at the current rate of spread and reach that point on the Friday following the Lunar New Year holiday.

Senior health official Kwon Joon-wook said at a briefing on Thursday, “If we fail to control the spread during the Lunar New Year holiday, we expect 10,000 to 15,000 new confirmed cases a day at the end of February.”

Private experts predict that as many as 100,000 confirmed cases will be reported at the peak. More than 30 million people are expected to move during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Jeong Jae-hoon, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University, predicted, “As the omicron variant trend is faster than previous predictions, the caseloads may reach 10,000 next week and more than 100,000 at the peak.”

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)

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