According to an expert advising the government, Omicron is spreading quicker in South Korea and has the potential to trigger a greater surge than previously predicted.
Dr Jung Jae-hun, a preventative medicine specialist and prime minister’s COVID-19 adviser, stated on Thursday that the omicron wave is “feared to be worse than previously thought.”
Three weeks ago, all of Jung’s team’s scenarios predicted more than 10,000 cases per day and up to 2,000 admissions in intensive care units either by March or late February if travel and movement restrictions are relaxed. In an interview on Tuesday, he stated that up to 50,000 cases per day are “entirely conceivable.”
Now, Jung, who works on COVID-19 response programs with major national health institutions such as the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, believes the daily peak might reach and possibly exceed 100,000.
“This is because, one, we had not been able to anticipate imported cases contributing to the spread as greatly (as they did),” he said over the phone. In the past week the infection rates among international passengers have risen to record levels of more than 300 a day.
“Given the global situation, I think it’s safe to assume most of them have omicron,” he said, explaining, “even if we were able to screen 90 percent of them upon arrival, at least 30 people will go on to spread it in the community unknowingly.”
“Omicron may be 20 percent more transmissible than the former estimate, which was that it would be 2.8 times more transmissible than delta,” Jung went on to say.
He also said that the analyses’ computations were still inconclusive.
According to Jung, the diminished potential of omicron to produce serious sickness softens the blow.
“Omicron’s severity is expected to be one-half to one-fifth that of delta,” he said. “Though we should note that in Korea, not that many have natural immunity, which makes it hard to predict just how less severe it’s actually going to be.”
Korea is more prepared now to face Omicron
According to bed counts, Korea appears to be more prepared now than it was two months ago, when a delta-related high of over 7,000 cases per day overwhelmed hospitals, he added.
“Now we have twice as many critical care beds, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare numbers. Assuming that omicron severity turns out to be about a third of delta’s, hospitals could hold up to a larger outbreak of around 40,000 cases (per day).”
Hospitals “won’t be able to keep up” after that point, he warned. “Then we might need to consider some form of intervention, like an emergency stop.”
The government has stated that once the pandemic enters the omicron phase, the country would abandon the test, trace, and treat routine.
The number of new cases reached 6,603 in the 24 hours of Wednesday, approaching the government-set threshold of 7,000 for moving to a strategy “attuned to the characteristics of the omicron variant.”
According to official announcements thus far, the omicron plan will reduce PCR testing, contact tracking, and border screening. At-risk groups will receive hospital care first, while the others will heal at home.
According to Jung, these signs of relaxing restrictions appear to have accelerated omicron’s spread as well.
Only 39 people have been administered the oral antivirals over the three days after about 20,000 courses of Paxlovid arrived in the nation. This is significantly less than the government’s stated goal of delivering medications to 1,000 people every day.
Son Young-rae, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said in a closed-door briefing on Thursday that omicron was “certain” to become dominant in Korea within few days, and that the succeeding three weeks would be a “critical juncture” with the Seollal holiday fast approaching.
The number of omicron cases in sequenced samples increased to 26% last week, up from 12% the previous week. As omicron’s share doubles on a weekly basis, it is expected to hit 50% this week – the threshold for achieving dominant status.
According to Son, hospitals throughout the country have enough space to deal with the approaching omicron outbreak, with roughly 20% of their intensive care beds now occupied – down from more than 80% during the December spike. The capacity of PCR testing has been increased to 700,000 tests per day.
Although Son stated that the ministry, along with other COVID response-related government agencies, would “review moving on to the omicron-specific strategy” once the 7-day moving average of cases reached 7,000, President Moon Jae-in later that day called on the Prime Minister’s Office and the rest of his Cabinet to “make a shift toward the omicron response strategy promptly” later that same day.
Omicron is “an unavoidable reality”
In a written briefing, the president stated that omicron emerging as a dominant variant was a “an unavoidable reality.”
“The good news is that the severe cases are on the decline,” he was quoted as saying. “As we have so far, if we work together again this time, we can overcome the omicron wave.”
Concerning the conflicting statements on the point of shift in response, the ministry stated in a press release, “The government COVID-19 response headquarters and Cheong Wa Dae are on the same page that the transition will proceed in a speedy, and smooth fashion.”
“The preparations for the transition toward an omicron response are underway, and the government will communicate to the Korean people of the upcoming changes in the near future,” the report said.