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Korea mulls ‘living with COVID-19’ after reaching 70% vaccine target

Critical care patient numbers at record high

People dine at a restaurant in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Tuesday. Under the current social distancing tier, no more than two people can gather at a time after 6 p.m. Exception is made for people who are fully vaccinated. (Yonhap)
People dine at a restaurant in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Tuesday. Under the current social distancing tier, no more than two people can gather at a time after 6 p.m. Exception is made for people who are fully vaccinated. (Yonhap)

Public health officials and political leaders in South Korea are teasing the possibility of adopting a new exit plan of “living with COVID-19” in a couple of months’ time, when the country expects to reach its target vaccination rate of 70 percent.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s commissioner, told a Monday meeting of the parliamentary Health and Welfare Committee that around October, the country may be able to switch to a new strategy of minimizing mitigation measures and allowing more “normal” to return.

She added that the prerequisite for moving on was a full vaccination rate of 70 percent.

“When the vaccination is high enough to suppress deaths and hospitalizations, and the spread of the virus is kept under control through efficient testing and contact tracing, then it can be possible,” she said.

Last week, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said preparations for a more social distancing-free life could take place after the Chuseok holiday, which falls Sept. 18-22, by which time more than 70 percent of the population will have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

The Moon Jae-in administration aims to give 70 percent of the 51 million people in Korea at least one dose before Chuseok, and then get to a full vaccination rate of over 70 percent by October.

The push to get back to normal has been gaining steam lately, with more politicians advocating the move. Moon’s former prime minister-turned-Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Nak-yon said Monday it was “time for a change in paradigm in pandemic response.” “We should move on from managing all cases to managing just the severe cases,” he said.

Minister of SMEs Kwon Chil-seung likewise said Tuesday that social distancing was “not sustainable” and “in need of a change” in order to protect small businesses.

The fourth surge in infections has placed Greater Seoul under the most stringent tier of social distancing -- which bans social gatherings of more than two people past 6 p.m. and shuts down food outlets and other risky places at night -- since the first week of July.

A recent report out of Seoul National University’s preventive medicine department suggested the measures currently in place have been ineffective in containing the latest surge. The weekslong intensive social distancing, the report said, was not leading to decline in movement.

“Korea’s pandemic control strategy has relied on people willingly following safety steps, without imposing a lockdown or travel restriction. But the compliance appears to be waning,” said Dr. Jung Ki-suck, former chief of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Korea is around the same size as the US state of Indiana. People can easily travel to cities where the rules are more lenient,” he pointed out. “The same intensity of restrictions should be implemented outside Seoul.”

Amid the hopes of more freedoms, the number of COVID-19 patients requiring critical care reached 420 on Monday -- the highest since the government began keeping statistics in March of last year.

By Monday’s end there were 67 patients with COVID-19 who were put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO -- the final stage of life support, reserved for the sickest patients -- up from the previous day’s 61.

Respiratory disease specialist Dr. Park Sung-hoon at Hallym University Medical Center’s ECMO center said that since July he had seen more and more younger patients come in.

“Before this summer outbreak, the patients who ended up on life support were elderly. Now, all of the eight patients on ECMO at our center are in their 40s and 50s,” he said. “They are the age group that is yet to be vaccinated.”

Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, told reporters Monday that the latest surge in infections was becoming a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

“I urge you to get vaccinated,” he said, although most people who haven’t gotten vaccinated in Korea remain not yet eligible.

Five out of eight COVID-19 deaths in patients in their 20s in Korea occurred in the last three weeks. All five had existing medical conditions and none had received a vaccine, said Lee Sang-won of the national health agency’s contact tracing team, because they were not eligible for one.

The vaccination efforts in August mainly focused on delivering the first doses to people in their 50s. For people under 50, their turn for a vaccine comes later this week.

According to official statistics, 93 percent of some 61,000 patients who were diagnosed between May and July were not vaccinated. Among the around 1,400 patients who fell critically or fatally sick during the same period, 99 percent were not vaccinated, and about half of them were younger than 60.

Dr. Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute, based in Seoul, said the hurdle facing Korea in vaccination progress was supplies, not hesitancy.

“(Vaccine hesitancy) is not a problem in Korea, where people actually want to be vaccinated that the reservation system crashes, because so many people are signing up,” he said. “Korean parents are really good at vaccinating kids, and Korea has health care resources that are up to the task.”

Kim added that delta, which is also considered the dominant strain in Korea, changed the number of people that need to be vaccinated. The estimated threshold now “may need to be 80 percent or higher,” he said.

The government said the full vaccination timeline could be moved up depending on the vaccine supply situation. As more deliveries arrive, the gap between the first and second Pfizer and Moderna shots -- which are recommended to be given three and four weeks apart, respetively -- could be shortened from the current six weeks.

Roughly 7 million doses of the Moderna vaccine are due to arrive in Korea within two weeks, according to the government announcement, with 450,000 more doses of the same vaccine to be supplied from Romania.

By Monday afternoon’s count, a combined 10 million doses of vaccines from AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson were left in the country.

Over the month of August, Korea has administered an average of 239,838 vaccine doses daily. To date 51 percent of the Korean population has received at least one dose of a vaccine while 23 percent are fully vaccinated.

In the past week, the number of new cases confirmed each day has averaged 1,777. Since the pandemic began, a total of 239,287 people have been infected, of whom 2,228 died.

By Kim Arin (