Korea’s scarce COVID-19 vaccines are not reaching people who most need the protection, while people at lower risk are getting first dibs on the jabs, experts say.
Dr. Eom Joong-sik, an infectious disease specialist at Gachon University Medical Center, a government-designated COVID-19 hospital in Incheon, said people who are medically frail or otherwise at risk have fallen through the cracks in the national vaccine rollout.
“People whose health conditions put them at high risk of severe outcomes, who should have made the priority list, have been left out, when age is not the only factor that raises one’s risk of serious illness from COVID-19,” he said.
The only two health conditions that qualify for priority vaccinations are chronic kidney failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s rationale for not granting medically vulnerable people priority is one of convenience. Jeong Eun-kyeong, the agency’s commissioner, said that “proceeding in the order of age, rather than singling out people with underlying conditions, is faster and more efficient.”
To make up for the lack of access, one senior official at the national health agency said that from August onward, hospitals will have the liberty to prioritize patients with serious health issues among candidates for leftover vaccines resulting from missed or canceled appointments. So far, leftover vaccines have only been accessible through ultra-competitive online reservations open to anyone 18 and up.
But Korea’s age-based approach is “riddled with inconsistencies,” infectious disease professor Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University said.
“The rate of full vaccinations is higher in 30-somethings than in 50-somethings or 60-somethings, for instance,” he pointed out. “Seventeen- and 18-year-olds sitting college entrance examinations have gotten vaccinated ahead of their parents in their 40s and 50s.”
According to official statistics, 17.4 percent of people in their 30s were fully vaccinated -- much higher than their older counterparts. Only 7.6 percent of those in their 60s completed their vaccination regimen. For those in their 50s, it was 7.4 percent, and for those in their 40s, 8.2 percent.
Kim went on, “Some groups have been pushed to the front of the vaccine line based on arbitrary standards that do not keep with the principles of public health and equity, while those that are at elevated risk are still waiting for their turn.”
In particular, he questioned whether the agency’s decision to vaccinate chaebol executives and employees before others was justified, especially against the backdrop of limited vaccine supplies. About 310,000 people working for some of the largest conglomerates in the country, including Samsung, Hyundai, LG and SK, had the privilege of getting a vaccine outside the mandated order.
“This does not align with the agency’s previously stated aim of the vaccination campaign, which is to protect at-risk groups from COVID-19,” Kim said. “For regular people, they must wait until they become eligible by age regardless of their medical vulnerability, and then compete for slots that fill up on a first-come, first-served basis.”
Dr. Lim Soo, an endocrinologist at Seoul National University Hospital in Bundang, said he wondered why his diabetic patients were not given priority access to vaccinations, despite suggestions from him and other member doctors of the Korean Diabetes Association.
While the government’s initial plan issued earlier this year had said patients suffering from long-term conditions such as diabetes would be among those ranked on top of the vaccine list, they have been left out in the final version, he said.
“One US report says 40 percent of people who died from COVID-19 had diabetes,” he said. “In Korea, too, COVID-19 patients with diabetes were 1.93 times more likely to require artificial ventilation, and 2.66 times more likely to die than those without the condition.”
Dr. Paik Soon-young, an emeritus professor of virology at Catholic University of Korea, said how Israel -- which has achieved one of the highest vaccination rates in the world -- was distributing its third booster shots could serve as a good indicator of which groups to prioritize.
“In Israel, a third dose is being offered to people with weak immune systems whose levels of protection couldn’t be boosted high enough and maintained long enough even after two rounds of vaccinations,” he said. These included people who have undergone organ transplants and cancer patients going through chemotherapy, neither of whom are considered a priority for vaccines in Korea.
“People ailing from immunocompromising conditions, no matter how old they are, are having to receive vaccination for the third time to attain sufficient protection against COVID-19,” he said. “Korea’s vaccination policy has shown little care for such patients.”
Currently, Korea is delivering first-round vaccinations to people in their mid- to late 50s. For people in their 40s and younger, eligibility opens up later in August. Of the 51 million people here, 37.9 percent received at least one dose of a vaccine, while 13.9 percent were fully vaccinated.
By Kim Arin (firstname.lastname@example.org