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South Korea shifts to at-home COVID treatment as Omicron becomes dominant variant

As the COVID-19 virus variant Omicron spreads throughout South Korea, disease control officials are shifting to at-home COVID treatment and issuing an advanced warning that the Omicron variant will soon emerge as the dominant variant in the country.

The daily tally of confirmed cases hasn’t surpassed 7,000, which is when authorities intend to switch to an Omicron-focused response strategy, but with the daily caseload exceeding 5,000 for the first time in nearly three weeks, they are working to make at-home COVID treatment as the default approach for people infected with the new variant.

On Wednesday, Korea recorded 5,805 new cases of COVID-19, an increase of 1,734 over the previous day’s count of 4,071. This marked a 1,422 rise from the 4,383 patients recorded on Wednesday of the previous week.

Omicron was found in 26.7 percent of local COVID-19 cases and 94.7 percent of cases imported from other countries last week, indicating that the highly contagious variant is quickly replacing the Delta strain.

The matter was addressed on Thursday by Jeong Tong-ryeong, head of the general coordination team at Korea’s Central Disease Control Headquarters.

South Korea shifts to at-home COVID treatment as Omicron becomes dominant variant
Omicron will soon become the dominant COVID variant in South Korea

“We thought that Omicron might become the dominant variant around Jan. 21. We expect the [daily caseload] to reach 7,000 — the point at which we plan to alter our [disease control] strategy — around the same time,” Jeong said.

“Omicron will replace Delta, and account for 80%-90% of cases, during the current three-week period of social distancing that includes the extended holiday for the Lunar New Year,” officials of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters (CDSCH) said during their daily briefing on Wednesday.

At-home COVID treatment is S. Korea’s response to Omicron variant

Korea’s disease control officials have indicated that once Omicron becomes the dominant variant, they would shift to a paradigm centred on “autonomy and responsibility,” rather than traditional techniques of containing an infectious disease.

The idea is to remain in the “preparatory phase” until the daily caseload surpasses 5,000, then transition to the “response phase” when it exceeds 7,000. As a result, the CDSCH began planning for the response phase by adopting at-home COVID treatment as the primary approach for people infected with Omicron.

Previously, persons diagnosed with Omicron were routinely admitted to residential treatment clinics, even if they had moderate symptoms or were asymptomatic.

“We considered the fact that Omicron’s community spread is in full swing and that the variant’s serious case incidence is lower than that of Delta. With the goal of being selective and focused, we will mainly allocate space at our residential treatment centres to the elderly and those with underlying diseases,” Son Young-rae, director of the social strategy group at Korea’s Central Disaster Management Headquarters, explained in the briefing on Wednesday.

A South Korean in line for PCR testing

Patients under at-home COVID treatment

As of the end of January 18, Tuesday, 17,283 total number of patients were undergoing at-home COVID treatment, with over 12,000 of them in the metropolitan region. At-home COVID treatment was managed by 346 health facilities, including 149 centres in the greater Seoul area and 197 centres in other parts of the country. There are currently 47 outpatient treatment clinics in total where these individuals can receive in-person care.

If the number of daily cases exceeds 7,000 and Korea adopts the Omicron response approach, the disease control system will shift from the “three Ts” of testing, tracking, and treating to handling critical and lethal cases. The quarantine period will also be reduced from 10 to 7 days, and individuals aged 65 and older would be prioritized for PCR testing.

In addition, the CDSCH stated that it will develop medical infrastructure and promote involvement by local clinics to improve the efficacy of at-home COVID treatment. The headquarters is presently debating whether to conduct rapid antigen testing at local clinics, offer care at night, as well as provide emergency transportation; medical recommendations on these topics might be issued as early as Friday.

When requested updates about policies on social distancing, Son said, “Currently, we’ve arranged more than 4,400 beds for patients with serious cases and 16,000 beds for patients with moderate cases.”

“Rather than strengthening social distancing measures, we intend to focus on preventing infections among high-risk groups, as long as that can be managed with the resources of our medical system,” he added.

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