SEOUL — Over the past two years, South Korea has fought a victorious battle against Covid-19 with a so-called three-T strategy: It has stepped up laboratory “tests” to detect infections, it has “traced” the contacts using modern technology and he “treated” patients by keeping them in quarantine, where they were monitored by the government.
But with the fast-spreading Omicron variant threatening to overwhelm the public health system, that strategy now seems unsustainable — and it may even be unnecessary, South Korean officials say. Now they’re shifting the nation’s focus on the pandemic to a new game plan: “pick and focus.”
Over the past week, South Korea has begun asking patients who test positive to simply care for themselves at home, while the country redirects resources to those most vulnerable. . This new approach has unsettled people who have become accustomed to the government’s brutal virus intervention, and as the number of people fending for themselves at home has increased, so have complaints.
Some say they weren’t told when they called pandemic hotlines for information.
Being left alone felt like “leaving home” for many.
Medical supplies the government has promised to deliver — such as thermometers, oximeters, hand sanitizer and other pandemic necessities — have not arrived in time.
“The government’s partially hands-off approach comes as a shock to people who dutifully followed what the government told them to do, like wear masks and get vaccinated, and in return expected it to take responsibility. responsibility to protect their lives,” said Kim Woo-joo, president of the Korea Vaccine Society. “It might look like a survival of the fittest situation.”
On Tuesday, the government had mobilized thousands of neighborhood clinics to help ease the bottleneck for those seeking help at home. Health officials have tried to reassure people that despite the initial disruptions, the recent policy shift was inevitable, constrained — and even justified — by Omicron’s data.
Until last year, South Korea never had more than 7,849 new patients per day. But as Omicron became the dominant variant, the number of daily cases soared to 93,135 on Thursday. The government expects up to 170,000 new patients a day later this month. That’s just too many patients to give them all the same time and attention as before.
Fortunately, Omicron proved to be less dangerous than the Delta variant. Even as Omicron surged, the number of Covid-19 deaths fell from a daily high of 109 on December 23 to 36 on Thursday. The number of critically ill patients in hospitals rose from around 1,000 in mid-December to 389 on Thursday. People in their 60s and over accounted for 93% of all deaths.
“We need to use our limited resources more efficiently, focusing on preventing high-risk patients from becoming seriously ill or dying,” Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said.
As part of its new strategy, the government will focus its surveillance efforts on high-risk patients who stay at home – those in their 60s and over and people with pre-existing medical conditions – by providing them with home treatment kits. and calling twice a day to check on their status.
Other patients who test positive should monitor their own symptoms at home and seek help only when their condition worsens. Health workers will no longer call them once a day or provide food and other basic necessities, as they did until last week. Instead, family members of patients are now free to go out for essential supplies if they are vaccinated.
Critics said the government’s new approach disadvantages lower classes, such as the poor who have no access to medical care or other social services.
“It comes down to letting the virus spread, rather than doing everything possible to contain its spread,” said Woo Seoc-kyun, a representative of the Association of Physicians for Humanism, a national medical group. “It threatens to reverse what we have achieved so far through strict management of the pandemic, such as keeping the death toll low.”
The government said that even if the number of daily cases soared, it would still consider lifting restrictions further so that South Korea could transition to a “life with Covid-19”, treating the disease as a “seasonal flu”. “, provided that the number of serious cases sick patients were under control.
Whether the government can keep up with Omicron’s rise enough to make such a change is up for debate. This week, the United States put South Korea on its “Do Not Travel” list. The number of people being treated at home rose from 150,000 last week to 314,000 on Thursday and is expected to rise.
And so is the number of seriously ill people.
Jung Jae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University in South Korea, estimated the daily case count would peak at more than 200,000 and remain at that level through March. Another estimate, by the government’s National Institute of Mathematical Sciences, predicted up to 360,000 new patients a day by early next month.
Authorities are preparing more hospital beds for seriously ill people as a precautionary measure. They are also asking neighborhood clinics to step in to treat patients at home remotely. Nearly half of workers at government-run health clinics in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul, called for immediate relief from “extreme stress” caused by overwhelming workloads, according to a recent survey.
Last week, South Korea withdrew its GPS monitoring tool used to enforce quarantines – a smartphone app that alerted health workers when patients left their homes without permission. Many of the 60,000 workers who monitored such movements on the app will now be redeployed to help vulnerable patients at home, delivering medicine and providing hotlines.
“There was a bottleneck in the transmission of calls as we were trying to handle a sudden surge in the number of patients,” said Lee Ki-il, senior disease control coordinator.
The government’s changing attitude has not been influenced solely by the data. An increasingly impatient public has also been vocal about the need for a new approach.
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Since South Korea began banning unvaccinated people from restaurants, cafes, malls and other crowded places, a wave of lawsuits have followed. Litigants claimed that the restrictions discriminate against unvaccinated people and violate the freedom of citizens, as well as the rights of business owners.
“The government is violating our constitutionally guaranteed right to education,” said Yang Dae-rim, a high school student who joined a lawsuit against the government’s plan to bar unvaccinated teenagers from vaccination programs. after school cramming known as hagwon, and study cafes.
Mr Yang and others separately sued President Moon Jae-in for “abuse of official power”.
The government later removed hagwon and study cafes from the list of places requiring proof of vaccination.
After two years of battling the virus, South Korea has learned that the cost of maintaining its vigorous pandemic protocols is unsustainable in the long term, said Dr. Jung, a professor at Gachon University. More than 86% of the population has received at least two doses of a vaccine.
The government also urged people to get vaccinated, noting that more than 60% of those who died or were seriously ill had received no shots or only one. But vaccination alone was not enough to end the pandemic.
“We can’t end it like we end a war,” said Dr Jung. “It will gradually become something that we don’t have to take seriously.”