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Can we ‘live with COVID-19?’ Korea may be able to find out after Chuseok

More than 70 percent of Koreans have received or signed up for vaccination so far

Masked graduates attend the commencement ceremony at Ewha University in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)
Masked graduates attend the commencement ceremony at Ewha University in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)
Korea may be able to find out whether it can “live with COVID-19” after Chuseok, the national holiday falling later in September this year, when more than 70 percent of the population will have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare’s senior official Lee Ki-il told a news briefing Friday that discussions were underway to shift Korea’s strategy away from community mitigation that aims to prevent spread and protect all people.

“That may be possible in late September or early October by which time more than 70 percent of people will have been at least partially vaccinated,” he said.

The ministry said in an Aug. 6 press release that based on the progress of the vaccination campaign and declining fatality rates, Korea will move on to a “new pandemic strategy” of accepting that COVID-19 is not going away and allowing “normal” to return.

“The impact of vaccination is already showing. Unlike the previous surges, deaths are falling despite the large caseloads,” the ministry said as the first-dose vaccination rate crossed 40 percent.

By Thursday’s end, the number of people who have either received or signed up for a vaccination totaled 37 million -- more than 72 percent of the 51 million people in Korea. The rate of those fully vaccinated stood at 21 percent.

President Moon Jae-in said in a Liberation Day address to the nation that 70 percent of everyone in Korea will receive one dose before Chuseok -- Sept. 18-22 -- and that by October, 70 percent will be fully vaccinated.

Front-line health workers and experts say that it is hard to predict if Korea will be ready to pursue that path a month from now.

Dr. Eom Joong-sik, an infectious disease specialist at Gachon University Medical Center, a designated COVID-19 hospital in Incheon, said even September was “too early to discuss easing interventions.” “I know the idea gives people hope, but there are a lot of milestones to get through before it is possible,” he said.

Eom said he predicted the current fourth surge of infections to last well beyond this month, calling for the augmentation of capacity at hospitals.

As cases hover around 2,000 a day, hospitals as well as community treatment centers for quarantining patients with mild symptoms were nearly full to the brink, he said. For the second time in the space of a week, at least two patients at a quarantine facility died waiting to be transferred to a hospital.

Eom also pointed out that reaching the vaccination goal depends on vaccines getting here on time, which is a variable outside the country’s control. “Korea is equipped with the medical infrastructure to execute speedy vaccinations if only there are enough supplies to do that,” he said.

Korea has lengthened the interval between the dual doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to six weeks from the standard three and four weeks, respectively, following delays in shipments. As of Thursday evening, a combined 12 million doses of AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines remained in the country.

Infectious disease professor Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University said the threshold for vaccination before moving on to low-intensity measures needs to be higher than 70 percent due to the recent delta variant, which made up roughly 90 percent of sequenced samples last week.

“There may emerge another variant that is at once highly transmissible and vaccine-resistant that could end up setting the bar for vaccination even higher,” he said. “Until enough people are fully vaccinated -- and by enough I mean more than 70 percent -- we need to continue to follow other safety steps like masking, social distancing and crowd avoidance.”
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