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[Editorial] Post-omicron policy

Government shouldn’t make hasty decisions over COVID policies amid lingering concerns

The South Korean government is poised to scrap COVID-19 restrictions as the omicron-led infections are showing signs of abating in recent weeks. Furthermore, it is mapping out a post-omicron scheme as well.

The protracted COVID-19 pandemic is indeed receding, though the exact pace is hard to predict. The country reported 210,755 new cases Tuesday, bouncing back to over-200,000 mark after hitting the lowest level in seven weeks a day earlier, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

The number of critical ill patients stood at 1,005, with the weekly average still hovering over 1,000. The number of new COVID-19 deaths came in at 171, down from 258 a day earlier, the public health agency said. As with the critically ill patients, the weekly average of the death toll stayed at 312, a figure that is not so comforting.

The government’s position is that COVID-19 deaths and severe cases have already peaked here and are trending downward. So a new set of measures, such as removing the outdoor mask mandate and social distancing measures, are expected to be announced this week.

The country’s COVID-19 social distancing measures are built around the mask mandate, business curfews and a 10-person limit on private gatherings.

It is time for health authorities to consider adjusting the COVID-19 policy, but not in a hurried way that could open the door for a resurgence of the highly transmissible omicron variant or a massive spread of new strains, such as the BA.2 subvariant.

As far as vaccinations are concerned, the country has yet to encourage people to get vaccinated. The ratio of those who have received their second and third shots are 86.7 percent and 64.2 percent, respectively. As the impact of previous shots continues to weaken against a new strain over a period of three to six months, people should go for another jab proactively.

As for the post-omicron scheme, the government is reportedly focused on normalizing the country’s overburdened medical system, including hospitals specializing in COVID-19 treatment. By downgrading the COVID-19 classification, the government is expected to let local clinics administer paid tests and treat patients in person.

In moving toward a new phase, however, particular caution should be directed toward vulnerable groups. The elderly and those at nursing facilities remain exposed to high infection risks. Those aged 60 years or older account for nearly 94 percent of new COVID-19 deaths. Also worrisome is that around 20 percent of new cases come from the elderly group.

Normalizing the medical system without setting up proper care policy for vulnerable groups could backfire. Reducing beds for critical ill patients, therefore, should move ahead at a slow pace to guard against a sudden surge in the coming weeks.

The downgrade of the COVID-19 classification will shorten or abolish the state-imposed quarantine period. As a result, the government support for treatment costs will be lifted, which could put more financial burden on those in the low -income brackets.

The country’s COVID-19 policy has shifted toward at-home treatment, but patients suffering from severe symptoms still need to visit local clinics, many of which are not getting state support in time.

Health authorities are also urged to set up a tight protection measure against new variants, such as the XE recombinant variant of BA. 1 and BA. 2. On Tuesday, the nation reported the first case of an omicron recombinant variant, XL.

There is no doubt that the change in status of COVID-19 from pandemic to endemic will signal the beginning of the much-anticipated ending of the virus-ridden period. To that end, the government should take a cautious approach in mapping out a post-omicron scheme and take special care of vulnerable groups.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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