South Korea’s nationwide vaccination program will start as early as next month as the country’s coronavirus situation remains in its third and deadliest wave thus far, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Monday.
Speaking at the central response team meeting, Chung said the government will do its best to ensure that the country has a detailed vaccination plan in place, covering all stages from shipment and storage to inoculation and aftercare, by the end of this month.
He asked related ministries to cooperate closely so that the country does not run into any roadblocks in running the vaccination program, as have occurred in the United States and a number of European countries.
“That is not something we can afford to undergo for our own vaccination program that starts as early as next month,” Chung said. “The plan needs to be finalized in detail by the end of this month, and preparations must be clearly shared with the people on the way.”
Korea has so far secured vaccine doses for 56 million people from five suppliers and is planning to start providing them to front-line medical workers and vulnerable people first.
The first vaccine to be provided to Koreans will be the one from AstraZeneca, which is expected to be shipped around February or March. Those from Janssen and Moderna should follow in the second quarter, and others made by Pfizer and BioNTech in the third quarter.
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety on Monday started reviewing the approval application from AstraZeneca for its COVID-19 vaccine, which is expected to be met with approval within the next 40 days.
Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong said in a press briefing Monday that the agency has embarked on initial stage of preparations with a goal of announcing more detailed plans later this month.
“We are planning to start inoculation for workers at high-risk medical facilities and elderly people at elderly care hospitals and clinics probably around late February,” Jeong said.
“(The KDCA) is coming up with the list of these people and making the initial round of preparations.”
The announcement comes as Korea continues to struggle with soaring infection numbers despite toughened virus control measures.
Korea on Monday announced 1,020 new COVID-19 cases reported the previous day -- 985 locally transmitted and 35 imported from overseas -- raising the total number of cases recorded in Korea to 64,264.
The latest figure marks an extremely sharp rise from 657 new cases announced Sunday and 824 cases announced Saturday. Those numbers were lower because fewer COVID-19 tests were conducted over the New Year’s Day holiday weekend, officials explained.
By Sunday’s end, Korea also reported a total of 981 deaths from the coronavirus, up 19 from a day earlier. The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition reached 351, down from 355 people a day earlier.
Mass infection clusters continued to be traced to eldercare facilities and private gatherings, and a deadly outbreak affected a detention center in Seoul.
Nursing homes in Gwangju and Incheon reported dozens of new cases, while clusters were also identified in connection with a logistics center in Incheon and with a number of churches.
By the end of Sunday, 1,084 COVID-19 cases had been reported in connection with the Dongbu Detention Center in Songpa District, southern Seoul, with 125 of those added in the 24 hours ending Sunday at midnight.
The cluster there has prompted the government to impose Level 3 social distancing rules on all correctional facilities in the country, restricting the entry of visitors and making employees work shorter hours.
Despite such trends, officials said the country seemed to be on course toward bringing the virus under control, as the average number of new cases per day had dropped over the past three weeks.
“If we look at the number of locally transmitted cases for each week, we see a mild downward curve of the number of cases falling from 989 cases per day to 984 cases per day and 916 cases per day,” said senior Health Ministry official Yoon Tae-ho in a press briefing Monday.
Korea is also fighting to minimize the impact of a more contagious COVID-19 variant from Britain. There were 10 confirmed cases of the new strain on Korean soil as of Sunday at midnight.
Starting Friday for flight arrivals and a week later for ship arrivals, all foreigners arriving in Korea will be required to present the results of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours before departure. Flights from Britain are suspended until Thursday.
The government is preparing to supply more health care workers to eldercare facilities to prevent additional fatalities and carry out more coronavirus tests.
The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters said the central government would provide funds for local governments to recruit care workers to be dispatched to eldercare facilities, while continuing to secure more hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition.
The headquarters added that it was discussing ways to safely walk back social distancing restrictions for some multiuse facilities after facing criticism that the government lacked clear standards in the matter.
In the capital region, the government barred indoor athletic facilities from conducting private one-on-one lessons but allowed taekwondo and ballet schools to run classes with nine students or fewer.
“We believe that the indoor athletic facility sector is struggling greatly from being under the Level 2.5 social distancing rules since Dec. 8,” a COVID-19 response team official said.
“We are devising ways to allow those facilities to begin operating again two weeks from now.”
Officials said the goal for this year is to launch the vaccine program as soon as possible and find ways to safely maintain the medical ecosystem, as they expect COVID-19 to remain strong throughout this year.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to continue in Korea and the rest of the world throughout 2021,” KDCA chief Jeong said.
“We are focused on preventing deaths among high-risk groups with COVID-19 vaccine, keep the medical system afloat and acquire group immunities to prevent community-level infections.”
By Ko Jun-tae (email@example.com