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Korea’s race to vaccinate 70% of population with first dose nears finish line

Photo shows people waiting at a vaccination clinic in Mapo, central Seoul, on Tuesday afternoon. (Yonhap)
Photo shows people waiting at a vaccination clinic in Mapo, central Seoul, on Tuesday afternoon. (Yonhap)

The race for vaccinating 36 million people or 70 percent of the Korean population with one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Chuseok, beginning in less than two weeks, is nearing its end. By Monday’s end, more than 30 million people here had been at least partly vaccinated.

The upcoming Chuseok marks the first major national holiday after the vaccine program kicked off in February, with the government seeking to permit more social distancing-free family gatherings and celebrations.

The government is mulling a “phased return to normalcy” after passing the vaccine milestone.

Speaking at Tuesday’s government COVID-19 response meeting, Vice Minister of Health Kang Do-tae said that by the end of next four weeks of “intensive” social distancing, Korea may be able to move on to a more normal life, assisted by a wide vaccine coverage.

“The next four weeks will be a turning point for Korea,” he said.

The vice minister said the addition of 1.3 million Moderna doses was “more than the initially negotiated amount,” and said the boost in supplies is “expected to expedite Korea’s push for getting to the vaccine goal before Chuseok comes around.”

But the rush to deliver as many first doses as possible is met with concerns that not enough will remain for second doses, as it is not clear whether deliveries will arrive as planned next month or the rest of this month.

On exhausting current supplies for handing out first doses, Hong Jeong-ik, heading the national COVID-19 vaccination planning committee, said last week Korea did not have contingency plans for supplies falling short by the time first-dose recipients are due their seconds.

Despite high hopes pinned on the 70 percent first-dose rate to be a “turning point” in Korea’s pandemic, expert views are less optimistic.

Dr. Paik Soon-young, Catholic University of Korea’s emeritus professor of virology, said first-dose vaccination “means almost nothing” in the face of variants. “Only full vaccination (receiving all of the prescribed doses by a vaccine regimen) should count as vaccination,” he said.

Ahead of the weekend Korea confirmed its first cases of the more nascent and lesser known mu variant, which Paik described as having “significant mutations in the spike protein” that may render the virus more vaccine-resistant. Delta, which is known to somewhat weaken vaccine effectiveness, was already the dominant strain in Korea.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, overseeing COVID-19 vaccinations as the national disease control agency’s chief, offered a reality check with her assessment that even with the partial vaccination rate of 70 percent, significant freedoms won’t be viable. She says Korea will need to fully vaccinate 80 percent of adults aged 18 and up before any further easing in restrictions.

“That may be achievable around the end of October,” she told the National Assembly on Tuesday.

Korea on Tuesday set a new record in the number of COVID-19 vaccinations given out in a day. In the latest 24-hour period, a total of 1,374,038 doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered, of which 741,052 were first doses, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. Tuesday’s feat marks a huge jump from the one-day average of 321,407 doses seen the previous week.

Over the first seven days of September, Korea counted an average of 1,708 cases each day. There were 25,819 people with “active cases” remaining in isolation as of Monday afternoon. The pandemic left a total of 263,374 people infected here, among whom 2,330 died.

By Kim Arin (
Korea Herald daum