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Koreans’ willingness to get COVID-19 vaccines ‘high,’ says KDCA deputy chief

Over 150,000 get first jabs in less than a week since campaign launch

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency deputy chief Kwon Jun-wook (KDCA)
Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency deputy chief Kwon Jun-wook (KDCA)

COVID-19 vaccinations are running smoothly in Korea, public health authorities said Thursday, with high levels of willingness among those who are up for the first shots.

“At medical institutions where the vaccines are now being distributed, more than 90 percent (of the staff) have said they intended to get them,” Kwon Jun-wook of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency told a news briefing. “The surveys that we’ve run show no signs of hesitancy.”

Korea aims to complete vaccinations of top priority groups -- at-risk populations at long-term care settings and front-line workers at COVID-19 hospitals -- before the end of this month. The ultimate goal of herd immunity should be achieved by November, President Moon Jae-in vowed Tuesday.

“So far we’re seeing no hurdles in the path to this milestone, and thanks to the high vaccine uptake, hope of herd immunity is growing,” Kwon said.

He said as vaccinations gain pace, reports of suspected side effects were surfacing.

Since Friday’s rollout, Korea has inoculated over 150,000 people and seen 722 reports of suspected side events. Most of them have been mild, with the exception of seven reactions akin to anaphylaxis, none of which led to fatal outcomes.

“But this should not be a cause to mistrust the vaccines,” he said, adding that reported events were not proven side effects of the vaccine.

So far no link has been found between the vaccines and those who reported experiencing possible side effects after receiving them, although they remain under review.

If a relation to the vaccine is established, injuries and deaths can be compensated by the government by up to 437 million won ($389,000).

Three more deaths were reported on Thursday among people who received a vaccine, all of them patients already hospitalized with serious conditions, according to the KDCA.

One of the deceased was a 52-year-old man in North Jeolla Province who had suffered a brain hemorrhage last summer. He died at 1:40 a.m., nearly two days after getting a vaccine Tuesday morning.

Another one involved a 58-year-old man, also in North Jeolla Province, with a prior heart attack. The patient was given a vaccine at around 11 a.m. Wednesday and died about 15 hours later.

A woman in her 20s with epilepsy died at roughly 2 a.m. in Daejeon. She received her vaccine two days ago.

Two deaths that occurred the previous day were also of chronically ill people at nursing hospitals, in their 50s and early 60s, respectively.

The five vaccinated people who died were administered the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being given to at-risk groups at long-term care facilities. The other vaccine Korea currently has access to is from Pfizer, and it is being allotted to front-line workers at COVID-19 treatment hospitals.

Kwon said vaccination was essential for people with underlying medical conditions, as they are at particularly increased risk of severe COVID-19.

Although Korea is a well-vaccinated country, the KDCA is wary of these events being reported possibly discouraging people from getting vaccinated.

During Wednesday’s news briefing, KDCA Commissioner Jung Eun-kyeong noted problems with municipal offices announcing reports of suspected side effects to the vaccine independently from the agency.

She added that from this time forward, any serious “adverse events” might need investigations first before they can be publicized.

Citing overseas data, she said there was no evidence of causal links between the suspected adverse events and the vaccines.

In the UK, where a national vaccination campaign has been underway since early December, the overall reporting rate of adverse effects to both AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines was around 3 to 5 cases per 1,000 doses administered, its February government report shows.

The UK report said there were “no indications of specific patterns or rates of reporting that would suggest the vaccine has played a role” in the suspected reactions.

The first few days of Korea’s vaccine drive were not without some mishaps, which were immediately cleared up.

The National Medical Center’s storage room with three freezers containing Pfizer vaccines was close to being flooded Wednesday at noon due to water pipe ruptures in a bathroom nearby.

Last week, a truck carrying AstraZeneca vaccines from a warehouse near Seoul to a southern region had to change its course following a cold chain violation.

The government says it is implementing tighter surveillance at vaccination sites following an instance of some people who cut the line to get a vaccine.

A hospital in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province, is under a probe on suspicion that at least ten people who were not eligible for a vaccine received the jab.

The pandemic has sickened 91,240 and killed 1,619 in Korea to date, according to official statistics.

By Kim Arin (