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Korea to further ease social distancing as vaccines roll out

Plan for new scheme aims to open up economy, while making it harder for people to gather

COVID-19 vaccinations kicked off on Feb. 26 in South Korea. The photo shows one of the vaccination sites in Seoul. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
COVID-19 vaccinations kicked off on Feb. 26 in South Korea. The photo shows one of the vaccination sites in Seoul. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

South Korea is looking to revise its social distancing scheme to allow the economy to stay open at higher number of newly diagnosed patients, while restricting individual behaviors more strictly.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare said Friday that the easing was warranted as the country is now capable of handling a much greater number of patients than it was in November, when the current guidelines came into effect. No timetable for the revision has been announced so far.

“The five-tiered reopening system that is in place currently is far too stringent, and does not reflect improved capacity of hospitals and contact tracing programs,” the ministry said.

It added that these changes would relieve the burden for more sectors of the economy.

“It’s about leaving the compliance with safety measures up to the people, rather than forcing those restrictions unfairly on businesses,” the ministry said.

Under the updated system, the threshold for even “coronavirus-risky” businesses and other establishments to remain open is raised to a weekly average of 1,550 new cases per day -- or 3 cases for every 100,000 people.

At this point, nightclubs and certain types of bars would be subject to partial closures. Food outlets such as cafes and restaurants can offer delivery and takeout services only past 9 p.m. Other businesses can operate more-or-less normally as long as precautions are observed, such as wearing face masks and collecting names and contact information of visitors.

So there is more leniency for businesses, but for individuals, social distancing requirements are harsher.

When there is a weekly average of around 360 cases a day, all gatherings of a private nature larger than eight people are prohibited. Long-distance travel, indoor workouts and in-person meetings involving drinking are “strongly discouraged.”

And when the daily case count reaches 780, gatherings of five or more are banned. Outings for nonessential purposes are to be avoided past 9 p.m.

Should the number over 1,550, no more than two people will be allowed to congregate at a time after 6 p.m.

How these rules apply may vary per municipality, depending on the local seven-day case rate for 100,000 people. Previously, social distancing mandates were usually implemented nationally.

For instance, in Seoul metropolitan region, an average of 181 or more daily cases would call for ban on gatherings of more than eight people; 389 or more, four people; and 778 people or more, four people during daytime and two people in evenings.

The region-by-region approach might be “too complex,” however, according to Dr. Jun Byung-yool, who led the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011-2013.

“A lot of people commute in and out of Seoul every day, and if the rules are not consistent they’re bound to create confusion. It will be hard for people to keep up,” he said. But he agreed some distinction was needed between capital area, which has been the main area of viral spread since summer last year, and the rest of the country.

Other experts voiced concerns about restrictions being lifted as vaccinations are just beginning.

Preventive medicine professor Dr. Jung Jae-hoon of Gachon University said that now was “not the time” for releasing restrictions any further than they are.

“Despite over two months of more intensive social distancing, we couldn’t get the baseline of new infections down lower than it is now,” he said. “The tide can turn quickly in the next few weeks, and if we don’t do enough to quell the spread of infections, another surge may well happen.”

Still, expanding the gatherings ban -- “which proved to be most effective in helping Korea get past its winter wave of infections” -- was a meaningful step, he said.

The easing might be “a necessary evil” to save the economy, but it should wait while vulnerable populations are being vaccinated, said Dr. Paik Soon-young, a virologist at Catholic University of Korea.

“Seeing that businesses are being compensated poorly, it’s not fair to have them bear the brunt without adequate support,” he said. “But COVID-19 restrictions shouldn’t be lifted prematurely at least until vaccinations of at-risk groups are complete, which won’t be before June at the earliest.”

He pointed out vaccinations were “getting off to a slow start” in Korea, although it’s had its success in terms of pandemic containment so far. The first batch of vaccines -- 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca’s and 117,000 doses of Pfizer’s -- had arrived last week, but it was uncertain when the country would be getting the next shipment, as many countries including Korea have suffered delays.

“Like I’ve said, we are in a race against time. Korea needs to vaccinate faster to counter the new, vaccine-resistant variants and the ever-present threat of a new flare-up,” he said. “In the meantime, the efforts to curb the transmissions need to be maintained.”

The ministry said it would be finalizing the details of the scheme in the next couple of weeks.

Korea announced 398 cases and eight deaths on Friday. To date COVID-19 has sickened a total of 91,638 and killed 1,627 here.

By Kim Arin (