COVID-19 infection rate down slightly, but community transmissions and exhausted medical force still a problem

Posted on : 2021-01-06 18:29 KST Modified on : 2021-01-06 18:29 KST
Unclear whether current distancing measures will be enough to stop the third wave
A medical worker takes a sample at a screening center in front of Seoul Express Bus Terminal on Jan. 5. (Yonhap News)
A medical worker takes a sample at a screening center in front of Seoul Express Bus Terminal on Jan. 5. (Yonhap News)

The tougher social distancing measures that the South Korean government phased in over the past month and a half appear to have blunted the rate of infection in South Korea’s third wave of COVID-19 compared to the previous month.

But it remains to be seen whether the daily caseload, which is currently holding steady, will start trending downward. Even if it does, the prevalence of community-level infections strongly suggests that the decrease in the number of patients will be very slow.

This has prompted analysts to say that this crisis can only be overcome if three risk factors are addressed: Koreans letting their guard down about the disease, medical staff getting exhausted, and the emergence of more infectious variants of the virus.

Complacency about the crisis

Government officials and experts are most concerned that the public will become less vigilant about the disease as the COVID-19 pandemic becomes protracted. Monitoring of mobile phones showed 23.6 million instances of movement in the Seoul Capital Area (SCA) over the past weekend (Dec. 26-27). That was the third week in a row that mobility has decreased, reaching the lowest point since the pandemic began.

But that didn’t reassure Choi Won-suk, a professor of infectious disease and internal medicine at Korea University Ansan Hospital. “As a society, we’ve gotten used to the fact that there are hundreds or even a thousand cases of COVID-19 every day. That means that even a small decrease in the daily caseload could cause people to resume their activities.”

Choi thinks the tough measures adopted by the government — banning social gatherings of five people or more and banning the use of various public facilities under Level 2.5 of social distancing — might not remain as effective as they are right now.

“There are considerable concerns that downward trend in the caseload will make people too complacent. We’re looking for ways to keep people focused,” said Son Young-rae, director of strategy and planning at Korea’s Central Disaster Management Headquarters, on Jan. 5.

The expectation that the decrease in the caseload will be very gradual is also sparking concerns. “The amount of movement has been decreased, but we’d have to lower it by another 40% from its current level in order to bring the reproduction number from 1 to 0.7,” said Ki Mo-ran, a professor of preventive medicine at the National Cancer Center.

The reproduction number represents the number of additional people who are infected by each carrier of COVID-19.

“It’s practically impossible to reduce people’s movement any more, and even if we could lower the reproduction number to 0.7, that means we would still be seeing 700 cases a day after two weeks,” Ki said.

“One of the characteristics of the third wave is that far more people are being infected through interpersonal contact than through infection clusters at public facilities. So there’s no magic wand we can wave to make the number of cases decrease all at once. From now on, and in the long term, we may have to control and manage risk at its current level.”

Medical workers are being run ragged

Another cause of concern is that medical workers are getting more and more exhausted without any chance to take a break.

“It’s common to see exhausted nurses and other medical workers step down at various hospitals. Frontline workers have already exceeded their limits and are barely holding on because of the patients who need treatment,” said Eom Jung-sik, a professor of infectious disease at Gachon University Gil Hospital, who has been focusing on treating COVID-19 patients for nearly a year now.

“Because of the extensive spread of COVID-19 at the community level, medical workers have also been contracting the disease. That has led to unexpected staff vacancies that have become a major stressor in the medical system’s response to COVID-19,” Ki Mo-ran said.

A new variant of the virus

A further wrinkle in the third wave of the pandemic is the coronavirus variant that has appeared in the UK.

South Korea’s Central Disease Control Headquarters (KCDA) announced on Jan. 5 that the British variant of the coronavirus had been found in samples taken from a patient in their 30s who’d arrived on Dec. 13 and another in their 20s who’d arrived on Dec. 20, both from the UK. The variant turned up when researchers sequenced the entire viral genome of people who’d tested positive after entering Korea from the UK and South Africa.

That means that a total of 12 people in South Korea have been infected with either the British or South African strands of the coronavirus.

Furthermore, one of these newly reported individuals entered the country on the same plane as a family in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, who’d previously been identified as having the same variant. This individual tested positive on Dec. 14 while under quarantine.

“We can’t rule out the possibility that others were infected on the plane, but as a general rule fewer people are infected on planes than elsewhere. Since both of these two people tested positive at the airport or while in self-quarantine, there’s little risk that [the variant] has spread in the community,” said Lee Sang-won, head of contact tracing analysis at the KDCA, on Jan. 5.

But Choi Won-suk is still worried. “These coronavirus variants have been detected in more than 30 different countries, and cases are also turning up here in Korea. It’s hard to be optimistic about completely preventing domestic transmission. We need to buy as much time as possible through stringent quarantine controls at the airport,” he said.

By Choi Ha-yan and Suh Hye-mi, staff reporters

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