S. Korea eases COVID-19 restrictions as third wave still smolders

Posted on : 2021-02-15 17:22 KST Modified on : 2021-02-15 17:22 KST
Country on edge with vaccinations set to begin next week
During the last day of the Lunar New Year holiday on Feb. 14, people wait in line for COVID-19 testing at a temporary screening center set up on the plaza in front of Seoul Station. (Yonhap News)
During the last day of the Lunar New Year holiday on Feb. 14, people wait in line for COVID-19 testing at a temporary screening center set up on the plaza in front of Seoul Station. (Yonhap News)

The South Korean authorities are relaxing social distancing restrictions on Feb. 15, despite the continuing risk of the infection spreading again. More than 500 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on Feb. 11, the first day of the extended Lunar New Year holiday.

Transmission clusters continue to pop up at sites around the country including Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital, in Seoul, where 56 people have tested positive thus far. Korea has also reported 94 cases of people infected with variants of the COVID-19 virus.

The disease control authorities are nervous about what impact a resurgence of COVID-19 infections might have on the vaccination campaign that’s scheduled to begin as early as Feb. 25.

On Feb. 15, the government announced it was lowering social distancing to Level 2 in the greater Seoul area and Level 1.5 in the rest of the country.

One reason behind the decision is that Korea’s average daily caseload over the past week (Feb. 7-13) was 353.1, below the 400-500 caseload for Level 2.5. Another is that there’s some extra room for COVID-19 patients both in residential treatment centers and in hospital wards for severe cases.

“This decision was inevitable because of the social fatigue caused by the prolongation of the COVID-19 pandemic and the difficulties faced by small businesses,” explained Kwon Deok-cheol, first deputy director of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters (CDSCH), during a press briefing on Feb. 13.

But considering that the caseload has been falling very slowly and that many Koreans visited their families over the Lunar New Year, there are considerable risks that could lead to a rise in cases in the coming weeks.

South Korea reported on Feb. 14 that 326 more people had tested positive for COVID-19 on the previous day. While that was down from the first two days of the Lunar New Year — there were 504 cases on Feb. 11 and 403 on Feb. 12 — that may reflect the fact that fewer tests are conducted over the holidays.

One worrying indication is that the average number of new cases in the greater Seoul area over the past week (281.6) had actually risen from the previous week (257.6).

That bump in cases is the result of infection clusters of various sizes at hospitals, churches and athletic facilities. Since the first person tested positive with COVID-19 at Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital, in Seoul, on Feb. 12, the tally of cases in the cluster has risen to 56.

Another three patients were diagnosed in connection with Hanyang University Hospital in Seoul’s Seongdong District, bringing the cumulative total to 101. In Gyeonggi Province, five patients each were diagnosed in connection with the Victory Altar religious movement and an associated cram school in Bucheon and with a restaurant and Islamic place of worship in Pyeongtaek. As of Feb. 14, 25 patients had been diagnosed in connection with an athletic facility in Seoul’s Guro District, where the first patient tested positive on Feb. 10.

A growing number of cases involve virus variants known to be transmitted more quickly.

As of Feb. 14, a total of 94 people in South Korea had been infected with one of the variants, with an additional six domestic cases diagnosed that day. One of those patients had been released from quarantine. All 16 coworkers who had been in contact with the patient at their workplace tested negative and entered home quarantine.

Another 16 Syrian nationals had been diagnosed to date in connection with gatherings among relatives in Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province, after the first patient tested positive on Feb. 11. Disease control authorities plan to perform testing to determine whether they were infected with one of the variants.

“Raising the distancing level had an effect in terms of the number of patients declining, but with the virus variants it’s difficult to see as much of an effect,” explained Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious disease at Korea University Guro Hospital.

“The key question is going to be when the virus variants begin driving infections in South Korea,” he predicted.

Many are also focusing on what effects the relaxing of distancing measures will have on the virus’s spread.

“During the Lunar New Year holiday, people’s movements increase and they travel over long distances,” explained Eom Joong-sik, a professor of infectious disease at Gachon University Gil Medical Center.

“It’s unfortunate that they’ve relaxed the disease prevention measures at the current stage, without first examining what kind of effect the Lunar New Year will have over the two weeks through the end of February,” he lamented.

“If we see a resurgence of infections, we will have fewer resources available to operate vaccination centers and medical institutions, and when people can’t gather in large numbers, that makes it difficult to quickly vaccinate a lot of people,” he predicted.

Ki Mo-ran, a professor of preventive medicine at the National Cancer Center, said, “We’ve been maintaining a downward trend in terms of the indicators that the disease control authorities are watching, but the crucial thing is going to be managing the risk factors that appear after the distancing measures have been relaxed.”

On Feb. 15, the government was scheduled to announce an implementation plan for COVID-19 vaccinations in February and March.

By Seo Hye-mi, staff reporter

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

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