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Seoul sees signs of new spike amid softened social distancing

Experts say daily vaccinations need to pick up pace

By Kim Arin

Published : March 16, 2021 - 17:42

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Seoulites picnic at a park in Yeouido, central Seoul, on a March weekend. (Yonhap) Seoulites picnic at a park in Yeouido, central Seoul, on a March weekend. (Yonhap)


South Korean health officials on Tuesday announced special measures attuned to the spring season to beat back the spread of COVID-19.

Son Young-rae, the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s spokesperson, told a news briefing that about a month into eased social distancing, signs of a new surge of COVID-19 cases were growing in and around Seoul, which account for nearly 70 to 80 percent of recently diagnosed patients.

For the whole of last week, Korea counted over 400 cases each day, which makes it eligible for the second-strictest COVID-19 regulations according to its reopening guidelines. For Monday, Korea reported 363 cases -- 345 via community transmission and 18 imported. The cumulative tally stood at 96,380.

Son said in response, the ministry would be beefing up regulations at travel destinations and other venues such as theme parks, malls and flea markets that are typically popular during springtime.

Places with the most violations of safety protocols will be subject to random on-site inspections, he said, and an electronic system for collecting contact information at businesses and other public spaces will be expanded. Authorities will encourage more testing at workplaces prone to outbreaks, such as call centers.

“Our most pressing task at the moment is bringing down the case rates in the capital and the surrounding areas,” Son said.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun ordered a high-level government meeting on COVID-19 response earlier Tuesday morning to bring down the daily infection count to under 200 over the next two weeks.

“The administration will be delivering COVID-19 vaccines to the arms of 12 million people in the country before July. In order to get to that goal, we need to stop a fourth big wave of infections from coming our way,” he said.

With Tuesday’s announcement, Korea backtracked on its previous plans to open up the country further to protect the economy.

Just four days earlier on Friday, the Health Ministry said it would maintain the less restrictive scheme of social distancing across the country for another two weeks, with the rules lifted for weddings, first birthday celebrations and family gatherings. Two weeks ago, the ministry said it intended to drop most restrictions for businesses, citing an improved capacity of the country’s health care systems.

The announcement comes as 602,150 people in Korea have received their first of two COVID-19 vaccine shots as of Monday midnight, according to official statistics. Over 95 percent of them, or 575,289, were inoculated with AstraZeneca’s vaccine, with the rest receiving that of Pfizer’s. The country’s initial batches are from these two companies.

The average pace of vaccinations is around 31,700 shots a day, which is expected to speed up once more vaccines become available for the wider population in the summer.

But a Monday report by the National Institute for Mathematical Sciences’ COVID-19 modeling team suggests Korea might need to ramp up the vaccination campaign to see any visible impact before the weather starts to cool in the fall.

The report said Korea needs to be administering at least 200,000 vaccine doses each day for vaccinations to start paying off in August.

It added that once the R0, which indicates how rapidly a disease might be spreading, surpasses 1.3, vaccinating vulnerable populations first won’t help much in terms of containing the pandemic, which is why mitigation efforts remain essential as vaccines roll out.

Preventive health care specialist Dr. Ki Mo-ran, a government social distancing policy committee member, agreed that COVID-19 vaccines will not make a difference in case counts until much later.

“Korea is giving vaccine priority to old and frail people to protect them from hospitalizations and deaths. But case counts won’t dramatically fall until vaccinations reach young people, who are more likely to play a significant role in spreading the disease,” she said.

Dr. Paik Soon-young, a virology professor at the Catholic University of Korea, said easing social distancing inevitably risks another flare-up in infections, referring to the Health Ministry’s relaxed guidelines released March 5 that is yet to come into effect.

“Everyone’s probably tired of grim warnings, but lifting restrictions prematurely is likely to invite a new spike in the country -- there’s just no other way around it,” he said.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)