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[Newsmaker] Student vaccine pass mandate may be adjusted

More than 50 percent of youths between age of 12 and 17 have received first dose of COVID-19 vaccine

A civic group holds a protest against government’s plan to expand the vaccine pass system to teenagers aged between 12 and 18, near Sinnonhyeon Station in Gangnam, southern Seoul, Saturday. (Yonhap)
A civic group holds a protest against government’s plan to expand the vaccine pass system to teenagers aged between 12 and 18, near Sinnonhyeon Station in Gangnam, southern Seoul, Saturday. (Yonhap)


Though South Korea is to go ahead with its controversial “vaccine pass” plans for teenagers, details of the scheme may be adjusted.

The government’s decision to expand the vaccine certification system to those aged 12 to 18 from Feb. 1 has been met with criticism from many students and parents.

Faced with opposition, the Ministry of Education is considering making some adjustments regarding the expansion of the vaccine pass system.

“Though we have announced that the vaccine pass system will be applied to those aged 12 to 18 from February, as there are many other opinions, we will discuss the timing and the range of applied facilities,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said Monday, on a TV show with Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong.

“Also, if there are problems after vaccination for children and teenagers, the government will share the responsibilities, supporting the medical cost,” she said, adding the outreach vaccination program for students slated to run until Dec. 24 could be extended, if needed.

In recent days, more teenagers in Korea have been getting vaccinated.

Authorities said Tuesday that 1.48 million, or 53.7 percent, teenagers between the age of 12 and 17 have received their first shot of COVID-19 vaccine. Some 1.06 million, 38.3 percent, have been fully vaccinated.

Regardless of the vaccination rate, however, the government’s plan to expand vaccine pass applications has been met with concerns.

Even disease control experts agreed the government should adjust its plans on the vaccine pass mandate for teens.

“The vaccination rate may go up due to the vaccine pass system. But the parents who are against vaccination are more defiant than ever,” Choi Eun-hwa, a pediatric infectious disease specialist heading Korea’s national advisory committee on immunization practices, said at a press conference Monday arranged by the Education Ministry.

“In Korea, cram schools are necessary facilities for children. It is like going to work for adults. We need to think about whether it is appropriate or not to include cram schools in the vaccine pass system,” Choi said. “In vaccination of teenagers, individuals don’t share the same interests with the nation. The government should focus on persuading parents and students.”

Jung Jae-hun, a professor at Gachon University of Medicine and Science, argued it was more important to persuade parents by providing accurate data on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, rather than to force vaccination through the vaccine mandate system.

“Expanding the vaccine pass system to teenagers is about encouraging vaccination. Then, we have to see if there are enough other policies to encourage vaccination, too,” Jung said.

When asked about whether it is unfair to widen the vaccine pass requirement to private cram schools while excluding schools, professor Lee Jae-gap of Hallym University Medical Center said schools can be better ventilated than other facilities.

“Cram schools and study rooms are not as well-ventilated as schools. Students stay in the facilities for more than a couple of hours during exam seasons,” Lee said.

Lee also agreed that details of the expansion of the vaccine pass system to teens should be adjusted, as the public remains unsure about whether teenagers should be vaccinated.

The three experts agreed the vaccination of teenagers is needed for their own protection as the virus situation has been worsening over the past few weeks.

On Tuesday, the Education Minister also met with the Korea Association of Hakwon which represents cram schools. The association had voiced complaints regarding the government’s vaccine pass measure for teenagers.

At the meeting, the association claimed it is not fair for the vaccine pass system to be expanded to cram schools.

Yu said she will look into improving the measure through consulting with experts, authorities and those from the cram school industry.

While the government has been hesitating to take a step back on the vaccine pass mandate for teenagers, the outreach vaccination program for students aged 12-18 begins Wednesday. Medical staff will visit schools to administer vaccines to students willing to be vaccinated. Some schools will have students visit public health centers for shots.

The vaccination program, however, is likely to have a low acceptance rate.

According to the Ministry of Education, about 1 in 6 students -- 83,928 out of 489,062 -- in a survey said they are willing to be vaccinated through the outreach program. This is about 7 percent of the age group, including teenagers outside of schools.

In Seoul, 1,154 elementary, middle and high schools signed up for the outreach vaccination program. However, 952 schools have less than 10 students who are opting for inoculation. Only two schools have more than 50 students opting for inoculation.

For teenagers in the age group who do not attend schools, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said it will run programs with 220 locations of the Support Center for Out of School Teens across the nation to encourage their vaccination.

Meanwhile, the number of students infected with COVID-19 in Seoul has been on the rise, as the virus wave continues to rage on in Greater Seoul.

A total of 2,124 students from kindergarten to high school tested positive for COVID-19 in Seoul from Dec. 6-12, up from 1,450 a week earlier, the city’s education office said Tuesday. Some 206 school officials also tested positive last week, the office said.

Of the total cases involving students and school officials, 37.1 percent were household transmissions, while 24.4 percent were transmissions at school. Unidentified infection routes accounted for 28.7 percent. The remaining 9.8 percent of transmissions occurred elsewhere.

“Experts warn children will be negatively influenced for a lifetime if we do not return to normalcy now as they are different from adults,” Kim Kyu-tae, deputy superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, said at a press briefing Tuesday.

“Though the number of confirmed cases in students in Seoul is on the rise, the rate of transmission in schools remains at 25 percent. More students are infected outside of schools,” Kim said. “For schools’ return to normalcy, we will continue the full-scale, in-person class scheme without going into an early vacation.”

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)

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