Medical workers enter a hospital in Incheon, Thursday, where a married couple were hospitalized the previous day after testing positive for the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the first cases in the country. Yonhap
By Bahk Eun-ji
The health authorities have gone into full alert after confirming cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which is feared to be more transmissible than the prevalent Delta variant.
As some of the confirmed patients are said to have gone about their daily lives and met others for days before they tested positive, speculation is that the new variant may have already spread in their local communities.
On Wednesday, Korea confirmed its first Omicron infections ― a married couple in Incheon from Nigeria, their Uzbek friend who gave them a ride home from the airport and separate cases of two women in their 50s in Gyeonggi Province, also from Nigeria.
The couple’s son, the Uzbek friend’s wife and mother-in-law and another acquaintance also tested positive. While their genome sequencing results haven’t come out yet, the health authorities say their chances of being infected with the Omicron variant are very high.
The couple tested positive Nov. 25, the day after returning from Nigeria. According to the authorities, they falsely claimed to have went home from the airport by taking a special taxi designated to carry suspected coronavirus patients or people waiting for test results. So the health authorities did not categorize the Uzbek friend as a person having a close contact with patients and placed him under self-quarantine.
Upon hearing of the couple’s infection, the friend voluntarily went to get tested, which came out negative. But he developed a fever and got tested again, which found him positive, Nov. 29.
From the couple’s arrival to his own confirmed infection, the man went about his daily life, meeting at least 50 people including family members, friends and colleagues, the authorities said. They believe the couple also had close contact with at least 17 people during their flight and after their arrival here before their own test results came out, creating an infection cluster that could produce community infections.
There is also the possibility of a similar community infection from the separate cases of the two women in Gyeonggi Province.
Doors of negative pressure rooms where COVID-19 patients are treated are closed at a hospital in Incheon, Thursday. Yonhap
And experts are not ruling out the possibility that community transmission has already begun.
“In a situation where we have to contain the spread of infection caused by the Delta variant, if infections with the Omicron variant begin, it is highly likely that it will add fuel to the fire,” said Jacob Lee, a professor of infectious disease at Hallym University Medical Center.
“The inflow of the Omicron variant from overseas should be blocked as much as possible, but it is not enough. Korea’s medical system in the community should be reorganized to a level that can handle the variant if it becomes dominant,” Lee said.
Aside from the new variant, the nation’s daily numbers of coronavirus infections are setting new records.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 5,266 new infections for Wednesday, breaking the previous record of 5,123 set the previous day.
The number of critically ill patients also reached an all-time high of 733, surpassing 700 for the first time since the first COVID-19 infection was detected here in January last year.
Against this backdrop, the government is considering tightening social distancing regulations again. Rumors are that the regulations could be strengthened to the previous highest Level 4, in which up to four people are allowed for private gatherings, or up to two after 6 p.m.
Regarding the rumors, senior health official Son Young-rae said Thursday that nothing has been decided yet.
“Detailed measures are under discussion and will be announced as early as Friday,” Son said in a regular press briefing at the Government Complex Sejong.
Son also announced that the government is making efforts to introduce an oral antiviral medicine for COVID-19 before the end of the year.
“The goal is to introduce the oral treatment within this year. We are currently in talks with pharmaceutical companies, and detailed guidance will be announced soon.”
Earlier on Nov. 8, the KDCA said that it would secure enough doses of the oral antiviral medicine for 404,000 people, and introduce it in February.Internet Explorer Channel Network