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[Editorial] Omicron fears

Stronger measures warranted to prevent omicron, now dominant variant, from wreaking havoc

South Korea is in for another round of the COVID-19 crisis, as the highly transmissible omicron has officially become the dominant strain amid growing concerns over its potentially sweeping impact on high-risk groups and the already fragile health system.

According to the government data released Monday, the detection rate of the omicron variant hit 50.3 percent in the past week. As omicron has emerged as the dominant COVID-19 variant, health authorities said they will shift gears and implement the new medical response system design to fight the strain.

Interior Minister Jeon Hae-cheol cited the steady reduction in the number of critically ill patients to some 410 and less than 20 percent occupancy rate of intensive care beds as evidence that the overall medical response system “is being managed in a stable manner.”

But his remark is far from convincing, since the government had taken too many missteps in detecting and tackling COVID resurgences, leading to public confusion and unnecessary damage.

The number of new COVID-19 cases reached 7,513 on Monday, marking the third straight day in which the daily cases stayed above 7,000. More worrisome is the steep rise in omicron cases: in the past week alone, the country added 4,830 omicron infections, raising the total to 9,860.

The country’s southwest regions and Gyeonggi Province are now hit the most by the rapidly-spreading infections of the omicron strain. Given the breakneck pace of the spread, it is only a matter of time before the strain would spill over to other regions, especially during the forthcoming Lunar New Year holiday, when a number of citizens are expected to move across the nation.

Under the new medical response system to battle omicron, health authorities will focus largely on treating high-risk groups such as the elderly or those with underlying diseases. Polymerase chain reaction tests will be reserved for high-risk groups, while others showing light symptoms will be given faster, simplified tests, followed by at-home treatment.

But such fresh measures may not be enough to deal with the much-feared surge in new cases led by the omicron variant. Some people seem to brush off the impact of the omicron strain, known for milder symptoms than the delta strain, but the potential of its rapid transmission rate cannot be downplayed.

Medical experts caution the portion of omicron cases could shoot up to 80-90 percent in the following weeks, with the total infections projected to reach 20,000 as early as next month.

What the government tries hardest to avert is the near paralysis of the health system that cannot deal with a dramatic surge in omicron cases. This is why the focus of the new response structure is being shifted toward treating high-risk groups and critically ill patients to better utilize the limited resources and personnel.

Such change is inevitable. But concerns are growing about a massive increase in asymptomatic and less severe coronavirus cases. These low-risk groups are required to use self-test kits or take rapid take rapid antigen tests at local testing stations. But the accuracy of these simplified tests tends to be lower than that of PCR tests.

Instead of public health centers, local private clinics are set to take care of many of low-risk groups. Such small clinics, many of which are understaffed, are often ill-prepared to meet a sudden surge in patients. Worse, there are just 654 respiratory clinics, which translates into a mere two clinics per local districts across the nation.

From early virus detection and supply of oral antivirals to more vigorous vaccinations campaign, the government is urged to take all possible measures to minimize the impact of an impending omicron-led surge.

By Korea Herald (