Monday, January 24, 2022

South Korea: Omicron Now > 50% - Govt. Urges People To Stay Home During New Year's



Two weeks ago, South Korea was reporting just over 3,000 COVID cases a day. A week ago (Jan 18th) cases began to surge (n=5,800) as Omicron's share of cases began to rise.  Yesterday, South Korea reported 7,628 cases and today they report 7,511. 

According to the South Korean CDC's Characterization of Omicron Variation and Diffusion Contrast (1.24., regular briefing)

As Omicron is rapidly gaining popularity in foreign countries, the number of confirmed cases has also surged, reporting the highest number of COVID-19 cases ever recorded.

○ Korea has delayed the spread of the Omicron mutation virus by blocking overseas inflows and suppressing domestic spread. However, in the 3rd week of January, the detection rate of Omicron mutation in domestic confirmed cases increased to 50.3%, and Omicron mutation became dominant.

* Omicron mutation detection rate: 50.3% of confirmed cases in Korea, 97.5% of imported cases [Appendix 1]

○ The detection rate by region was highest in Honam at 82.3%, followed by Gyeongbuk at 69.6% and Gangwon at 59.1%.

Overnight, the President of South Korea held a press conference where he instructed the government to shift to a new response to the Omicron variant, and asked residents not to travel to visit family and friends over the upcoming Lunar New Year Holiday 

Published : Jan 24, 2022 - 13:39 Updated : Jan 24, 2022 - 14:43

President Moon Jae-in on Monday instructed the government to swiftly shift to new response measures to cope with the spread of the omicron variant, warning the nation could see a surge in infections in the short term.

"The spread of omicron is very fast, making it the dominant strain, and the number of confirmed cases could surge in a short period of time," Moon said, according to Park Soo-hyun, senior presidential secretary for public communication.

Moon urged the government to "swiftly switch to the omicron response system that the government has preemptively prepared," Park said.

Moon also asked people to wear face masks, get vaccinated and refrain from traveling during the Lunar New Year holiday. This year's Lunar New Year falls on Feb. 1, and the holiday lasts until Feb. 2.

Moon also said the government should let the public know about the omicron response system in detail.
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The Lunar New year in South Korea is called Seollal - and as in much of Asia - is regarded as the most important holiday of the year. The Korean Times is also quoting Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum as urging people to stay home. 

Following the soaring Omicron caseloads, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum urged the public to stay home during the holidays, citing the risks of an explosive increase in the number of confirmed cases after family gathering and travels during the holidays.

"While spending holidays in the past two years with the coronavirus, we have experienced how nationwide travel and gatherings can aggravate the COVID-19 situation," Kim said. "With sincere apologies, the government again asks the public to refrain from visiting their families who live in other parts of the country during the holidays."

He said the number of confirmed cases exploded in other countries after the rate of Omicron variant infections surpassed 60 percent, and family gathering and travels during the holidays will only worsen the COVID-19 situation in Korea.

          (Continue . . . )

While Asia has been largely spared from the opening salvo from Omicron, we are seeing this variant beginning to make major inroads in places like Japan, Hong Kong, India, and now South Korea. 

While China has reported very low COVID numbers (which one should take with a grain of salt) since March 2020, they continue to pursue a rigorous `Zero-COVID' policy at great expense to their economy. 

China's immediate goal appears to be keeping COVID at bay at least until after the Winter Olympics, which which begins in early February.  But what happens after that is less certain.  

It seems unlikely that China can continue to contain COVID - even if it maintains its strict policies -  given the increased transmissibility of Omicron, and the expected low level of immunity in their population. 

The impact on the global supply chain, and the global economy, when COVID finally does sweep across China's workforce is hard to predict, but is likely to be significant. 

During the 1918 pandemic, when international travel was far less common, a few nations managed to block entry of the pandemic virus by imposing a strict quarantine of all arriving passengers (see Protective Effect of Maritime Quarantine in South Pacific Jurisdictions, 1918–19 Influenza Pandemic).

The four successful quarantines during the 1918 pandemic were in American Samoa (5 days' quarantine) and Continental AustraliaTasmania, and New Caledonia (all 7 days' quarantine).
  • The Spanish Flu did not reach American Samoa until 1920, and had apparently weakened, as no deaths were reported.
  • Australia's quarantine kept the influenza away until January of 1919, a full 3 months after the flu has swept New Zealand with disastrous effects. 
  • Tasmania kept the flu at bay until August of 1919, and health officials believed they received an milder version, as their mortality rate was one of the lowest in the world.
  • By strictly enforcing a 7-day quarantine, New Caledonia managed to avoid introduction of the virus until 1921. 

Once the quarantines were lifted, the virus eventually did make it to these isolated regions of the world. But by that time, the virus appeared to have weakened and its impact was lessened. 

And perhaps that is China's gamble.  That by delaying COVID's arrival, their hope is they will only have to deal with a less severe variant. 

But it isn't clear how much of Omicron's `milder' reputation is based on an intrinsic lessening of its virulence, and how much of it is due to the dual protective actions of previous exposure to earlier variants and a high uptake of (multiple) mRNA vaccines

And of course, Omicron may not be COVID's last hurrah. All of which means there is a good deal of uncertainty over what happens next. 

Stay tuned.