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Korea mulls downgrading COVID-19’s threat status as cases cross 400,000

Government paints rosy outlook ahead of omicron wave’s peak

People line up to take a rapid antigen test at a testing center near Seoul station on Tuesday morning. (Yonhap)
People line up to take a rapid antigen test at a testing center near Seoul station on Tuesday morning. (Yonhap)
South Korea has begun discussing changing the classification of COVID-19 so that it is no longer considered to be among the most threatening infectious diseases. The discussion comes as Korea approaches the peak of the omicron wave that has gone on for about two months.

The number of COVID-19 cases hit a fresh high of 400,741 over 24 hours on Tuesday, according to the official statistics. The average daily case count over the last seven days was 345,310, among the highest worldwide. The latest seven-day average of deaths was 230, up from the previous week’s 148.

During a Cabinet meeting Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum called for downgrading COVID-19 to “reflect the changes in the outbreak situation.” “This adjustment will allow the medical system to revert to normal operations in responding to COVID-19,” he explained, urging the medical workers to “depart from the previous ways of treating the disease.”

In Korea, the level of threat of an infectious disease ranges from the lowest level 4 to the highest at level 1. Apart from COVID-19, level 1 infectious diseases include the severe acute respiratory syndrome, the Middle East respiratory syndrome, Ebola virus disease, H1N1 flu and smallpox.

According to a senior Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency official, Jung Tong-ryung, reclassifying COVID-19 would allow considerable changes to how the outbreak is managed.

While level 1 infectious diseases are required by the law to be reported immediately to the government, lower-level infectious diseases aren’t. “This means cases can’t be tracked real time like they have been so far,” he said during a closed-door briefing Wednesday afternoon.

At hospitals, providing isolation care will no longer be required for patients with active cases. The government cannot force patients or suspected patients to comply with testing or contact tracing. The costs of treatment won’t be waived by the state insurance service, either.

Dr. Jung Jae-hun, preventive medicine expert and COVID-19 advisor to the prime minister, said over the phone that discussions surrounding the disease classification appeared to be a “matter of reducing the burden on the administration system.”

“I don’t believe that features of the virus have altered enough to warrant this change,” he said. “Plus it’s questionable whether this is an urgent task facing our response at this stage in the outbreak.”

He added that since the four-level classification system was implemented in the country, no other infectious disease initially labeled as level 1 has been downgraded to a lower level.

Preventive medicine professor Dr. Choi Jae-wook of Korea University agreed that the government calls for changing the disease classification was “premature.” “As of now, in the middle of the omicron surge, I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Although the prime minister said on this day the ongoing omicron wave seems to have “reached its peak,” forecast models show the worst of the wave falling much later, between end-March and early April.

Top health officials in the government have characterized omicron as being less threatening than earlier versions of COVID-19, likening the now-dominant variant to the seasonal flu.

Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, has said in patients younger than 60, the fatality rate of omicron was “close to zero percent.” “Overall, the case fatality rate for omicron infections has been similar to that for the seasonal flu, although for those ages 60 or older, it’s much more dangerous,” he said.

The ministry spokesperson has said the large surge in infections driven by the relatively milder omicron virus could enable a transition to an endemic phase.

Son told a Wednesday briefing the disease classification should reflect the changes in the virus’ assessed risks. “But we’re still in the early stage of the discussion,” he said.

“After the outbreak hits its apex in a week or two, Korea would be able to continue a more stable recovery of normal life,” he said. “Unless there emerges another variant of concern, I believe that that is the path we are headed.”

By Kim Arin (

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