South Korea’s “With COVID-19” policy begins from today, November 1. The nation will be stepping away from its restrictive COVID-19 policy in 651 days since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Jan. 20 last year. Restaurants, cafes, and movie theatres (adult entertainment facilities excluded) are allowed to operate 24 hours a day and personal gatherings are permitted up to 10 people in the Seoul metropolitan area and 12 people in non-Seoul metropolitan areas, regardless of vaccination status. Those who have been fully vaccinated are permitted to access baseball stadiums, fitness centers and karaokes without limitation.
However, the first step to a new everyday life still appears uneasy. Over 2,000 cases have been confirmed for four consecutive days until Sunday. Last weekend, many people flocked to hip streets of Seoul and Busan to celebrate Halloween Day until midnight, ignoring COVID-19 protocol. If such behavior continues, we may see surging numbers of critical patients, which would bring back restrictions on personal gatherings and business operation hours.
The rate of first dose vaccinations was 80.1% as of Sunday, while full vaccination rate was 75.3%. We still have 10 million people, mostly students, to vaccinate. The vaccination for students aged 12-15 years will begin today, but the booking for vaccinations in younger age groups tend to be low due to side-effect concerns. However, the risk of students being infected will increase when students return to school on November 22, after the Korean SAT exam. The government should actively communicate on vaccine side effects, expand the scope of recognition for side effects to boost vaccination rates.
We are also seeing an increase in breakthrough infections among the elderly and health care workers due to early vaccination. We need to provide booster shots for high-risk groups as soon as possible, advancing the vaccination from six months to four months after the second dose based on research that defense mechanism for the Delta variant dropped significantly after four months.
Britain, Germany, and other European countries that eased COVID-19 regulations relying on high vaccination rates are facing daily new confirmed cases of tens of thousands each day. On the other hand, countries such as France and Italy that have retained mask wearing and hand washing policies have relatively flattened curves. With winter nearing, we need to remind ourselves that vaccination is the first line of defense and mask wearing the final line of defense. We need to have basic COVID-19 regulations in place to prevent dismantling our pandemic control measures that we have built over the last two years.