S. Korean government considers extending Level 4 social distancing as fourth wave of COVID-19 continues

Posted on : 2021-07-20 17:13 KST Modified on : 2021-07-20 17:13 KST
With detection rates also rising for the Delta variant of the virus, some experts argue that the Level 4 measures should remain in place
One of the departure terminals at Incheon International Airport is pictured on Monday. (Yonhap News)
One of the departure terminals at Incheon International Airport is pictured on Monday. (Yonhap News)

As South Korea’s fourth wave of COVID-19 continues unabated with a historic Sunday high of new daily confirmed cases last weekend, the government is in a quandary over what to do for follow-up measures for the Level 4 social distancing imposed on the greater Seoul area, which is scheduled to continue through Sunday.

Amid spillover from the rapid rise in greater Seoul cases, regions outside of greater Seoul have been experiencing an even faster rise in new confirmed cases than the capital region. With detection rates also rising for the Delta variant of the virus, some experts argue that the Level 4 measures should remain in place.

As of the end of the day Sunday, the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases that day stood at 1,252, the highest ever for a Sunday. It exceeded the previous all-time high of 1,100 that was reached the Sunday before on July 12.

For the past week, new confirmed cases in greater Seoul have averaged 995 daily, close to the 1,000 applied as a standard for imposing Level 4 distancing.

At 516 cases, Seoul exceeded its Level 4 threshold of 389 cases, while Gyeonggi Province’s 398 cases and Incheon’s 81 cases both fell with their respective Level 3 standards of 268–536 and 59–117 cases per day.

Another 397 confirmed cases came outside the greater Seoul area, accounting for 32.9% of the 1,208 new domestic cases.

Detection rates for virus variants have also been rising by the week. During the week from July 11 to 17, the detection rate for major variants was 47.1% — nearly half of all cases.

The Delta variant, in particular, had a 33.9% detection rate among all cases analyzed, representing a rise of 10 percentage points from the week before. Since the analysis could be seen as representing a sample survey to some extent, this means that one out of every three new confirmed cases could involve the Delta variant.

The South Korean government has said that effects should become apparent this week from the Level 4 distance measures imposed on July 12.

For this reason, no schedule has yet been set for announcing what will follow when the Level 4 distancing for greater Seoul expires on Sunday. Discussions have been taking place daily with local governments in the capital region.

“The effects of adjusting distancing appear after about a week to ten days, so it’s going to be crucial whether we start to see a decline this week,” said Son Young-rae, director of the social strategy group for the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, in a Monday briefing.

“We see the next social distancing level as something we’ll have to think about while considering the scope and slope of the rise in confirmed cases,” he said.

But with disease authorities sounding the warning that serious risks remain even if the infection curve reaches its peak and starts to drop, the decision to relax the distancing level would not be easy for the government to make.

“Even if [confirmed cases] pass their peak and start dropping, the current scale of infections has gotten so high that we could see occasional large-scale cluster infections,” said Kwon Jun-wook, second deputy director of the Central Disease Control Headquarters, in a Friday briefing.

“The Delta variant is poised to drive the overall trend, and we could see a variant that’s even more powerful than Delta at any time,” he added.

“Over time, we could see an increase in severe and critical symptoms and deaths, and we could even see deaths among younger people,” he said.

Under the circumstances, it will be difficult to follow through on the remarks on Monday by President Moon Jae-in, who said the most important task, for the time being, was “ending things through a short and sharp approach” with high-intensity disease control measures.

Experts have called for maintaining Level 4 distancing while providing adequate support funds to small business operators.

“We need to extend Level 4 for at least another two weeks starting next week. If distancing is relaxed in the greater Seoul area, the virus could start spreading again rapidly,” said Jung Jae-hoon, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University.

“To prevent transmissions outside of greater Seoul, the distancing level there should be made equivalent [with stronger disease control measures],” he said.

Jeong also said that a “small lowering of the level could be possible in September since people in their 50s will have finished receiving their first vaccine doses by late August.”

“In the meantime, the government needs to be proactive about compensating small business operators and others for their losses,” he added.

But the amount of support provided by the government is small in comparison with the actual losses suffered by small business operators, and with the possibility of the virus’s spread continuing even as the vaccination rate rises, some analysts urge consideration of a long-term strategy beyond immediate disease control measures.

“Since the scale of infections isn’t growing anymore, it looks as though the immediate fire has been extinguished, and the death rate is only around 0.3, which shows that vaccinations are having an effect,” said Jang Young-ook, an associate research fellow at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.

“The level in greater Seoul needs to come down to Level 3. Even if the government decides to extend Level 4 in greater Seoul, anything beyond two weeks is meaningless in terms of effectiveness,” he said.

Jang went on to say, “Just as Britain is seeing a lot of confirmed cases despite close to 70% of people having received a first vaccine dose, Korea could see a lot of confirmed cases in the winter even if over 70% of the population has been vaccinated.”

“We need to start shifting our perspective toward a mitigation strategy,” he said.

By Kim Ji-hoon, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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