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Korea to ease COVID-19 rules for vaccinated people

Alley in Myeong-dong, a busy shopping district in Seoul, appears deserted Friday. (Yonhap)
Alley in Myeong-dong, a busy shopping district in Seoul, appears deserted Friday. (Yonhap)
South Korea will start easing social distancing rules for fully vaccinated people starting next week, with tougher rules reserved for those that are yet to be vaccinated.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare announced Friday that after full vaccination -- 14 days after a single-dose vaccine or the second dose of a two-dose regimen --, people will be exempt from the two-people rule in the evening hours. 

After 6 p.m., no more than two people can gather at a time under the current guidance, but up to four people will be able to mingle starting Monday if they are vaccinated, the ministry said.

People who are not yet vaccinated or just partially vaccinated will have to abide by the gatherings ban until further advised by the ministry.

Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the ministry, told a news briefing that the social distancing waivers were meant to boost vaccine uptake, and that municipal offices will have some leeway in introducing their own post-vaccination incentives.

“Vaccination status will come into play more and more in how social distancing rules apply,” he said, adding that in about a month’s time, Koreans may get to enjoy a growing set of freedoms as vaccination rates rise.

“Half of the country is expected to be completely vaccinated by September’s end. Currently, it’s about one fifth,” he said. “At least 70 percent will have gotten their first doses by then.”

He had hinted earlier this week that penalties for people who refuse to get the vaccine were “under discussion,” but that they wouldn’t be implemented any time soon. “Right now the focus is on encouraging more people to get vaccinated,” he said.

More than five months into the vaccination program, 21 percent of Korea’s 51 million people are completely vaccinated with either one-dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses of the AstraZeneca, Pfizer or Moderna vaccines as of Thursday midnight.

By age, 78 percent of people in their 80s were fully vaccinated, while the rate stood at 63 percent for those in their 70s; 20 percent for those in their 60s; 11 percent for those in their 50s; 13 percent for those in their 40s; 20 percent for those in their 30s; and 15 percent for those in their 20s.

Son said measures announced Friday are “not to be taken as a signal that it’s time to relax on social distancing.” The fourth and the largest-yet surge in infections was “plateauing, but not over.”

Korea on Friday saw 2,052 more cases, down slightly from the 2,152 cases recorded on the previous day, bringing the cumulative tally to 232,859. For the past week the country logged 1,811 cases each day on average -- a rate that surpasses the last wave’s peak of 1,240 seen in December.

Son added that lightening the rules for vaccinated people was also a way of somewhat cushioning the blow of extended curfew hours for small businesses. The nightly curfew for cafes, restaurants and other food outlets has been moved to 9 p.m. from 10 p.m. for the next two weeks.

Health experts urge continued caution even after becoming vaccinated due to delta, a new variant that is believed to be nearly twice as transmissible as the original strain found in Wuhan, China. The delta variant now accounts for 90 percent of analyzed cases in Korea, according to the ministry.

Data out of the UK showed vaccinated people infected with delta can carry the same amount of viral load as those who are unvaccinated, suggesting that even after vaccination, people may be able to transmit the virus easily.

So far, over the month of August, Korea has administered an average of 237,294 vaccine doses per day, up from July’s daily average of 90,335.