South Korea is revamping its pandemic response, by expanding rapid antigen testing and shortening the quarantine period, to deal with a faster-than-expected increase in coronavirus infections caused by the highly infectious omicron variant.
The measures were unveiled as the country recorded 7,513 new cases of infection on Monday, the third consecutive day above 7,000 and approaching the one-day high of 7,848 registered in December when a disastrous delta-driven outbreak skyrocketed hospitalizations and fatalities.
According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, omicron variant has surpassed delta as the most dominant variant in South Korea, accounting for more than half of all infections recorded last week.
Quarantine is shortened to seven days, rapid testing is made widely available
According to some estimates, the country might experience daily increases of over 10,000 this week. Transmissions might pick up even more over the Lunar New Year holiday break, which runs from this weekend to Tuesday and is when millions of people travel across the country to see family.
According to KDCA Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong, the quarantine period for persons who test positive after being completely vaccinated will be decreased from ten to seven days starting Wednesday. The government has announced last week that approach Omicron-infected patients will shift to at-home COVID treatment instead of facility treatment.
People who have been fully vaccinated and come into close contact with virus carriers will no longer be quarantined, but they will have to report their daily health status to officials before having a test within six or seven days.
Officials claim that loosening quarantine limits is unavoidable as they strive to prevent an omicron outbreak from wreaking havoc on workplaces and public services by putting large numbers of individuals in quarantine.
People who aren’t completely vaccinated will be required to quarantine for seven days if they come into close contact with a virus carrier and ten days if they test positive. More than 85 percent of the population of more than 51 million had been completely vaccinated as of Monday, and roughly 49 percent had received booster injections.
Officials also intend to rewire the country’s testing system, which is now based on PCR tests, to make rapid antigen tests more widely available in order to discover a larger number of illnesses sooner.
PCR testing will be reserved mostly for high-risk groups, such as persons in their 60s and above or those with pre-existing health complications, according to the proposals. Most persons will be required to utilize rapid test kits, which are accessible at public health offices and pharmacies, before receiving PCR.
While medical experts have referred to PCR testing as the “gold standard” because of its reliability and precision, such tests require a significant number of health professionals to provide nasal and throat swabs, as well as high-tech laboratory machines to analyze samples.
The new testing procedure will be implemented beginning Wednesday in three cities around Seoul and the southern South Jeolla province — areas with the greatest prevalence of omicron infections — before being rolled out countrywide at the end of this month or early February, according to Jeong.
“While the omicron variant leads to less serious cases (compared to delta), it’s highly contagious and could cause a huge strain on our epidemiological and medical response if it leads to a huge number of infections over a short period of time,” she said.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum urged citizens to stay at home during the Lunar New Year’s holidays, particularly to avoid visiting elderly relatives who aren’t completely vaccinated or haven’t had their booster vaccinations. Visiting senior homes will be prohibited during this time, and capacity on public transport will be limited to discourage travel.
Omicron variant dominates South Korea
Since its discovery in South Korea eight weeks ago, omicron variant has soared to dominance all throughout the country.
According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, omicron variant has supplanted delta as the most dominant COVID-19 variant, accounting for slightly more than half of all sequenced positive samples in the previous seven days.
According to the latest measures, the danger level for COVID-19 in Seoul and the rest of the country was extremely high. 7,513 new cases were discovered in the preceding 24 hours to Monday midnight, nearly twice the 3,857 instances discovered a week before within the same time period.
Following the discovery of an outbreak, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said on Monday that it was extending remote work to nearly a third of its personnel. So far, 24 people have tested positive, two of whom were on COVID-19 response duty. The government stated that contact tracing is still ongoing.