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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Nov. 29)

All News 06:50 November 29, 2021

Facing new wave of virus
Korea needs to reintroduce strict measures

South Korea is facing a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections amid the spread of the potentially more transmissible Omicron variant throughout the world. The new variant, if unchecked, could deal a severe setback to the country's efforts to return to normalcy.

The situation has been aggravated since Nov. 1 when the country eased quarantine measures and social distancing rules to ensure a gradual return to normal life under the "Living with COVID-19" scheme. The new daily infection cases remained high at 3,928 Sunday although they fell slightly from Saturday's 4,068. The number more than doubled in a month, hitting the record daily high of 4,115 Wednesday.

Medical experts predict the figure will rise further during this winter. More worrisome is that the number of deaths and critically ill patients has continued to grow. The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic reached a record daily high of 56 Sunday. Seriously ill patients also hit the highest level of 647.

As things stand now, it seems difficult to contain the ever-persistent virus without tightening the quarantine system and reintroducing strict social distancing guidelines. The Moon Jae-in administration should take immediate and bold action to respond effectively to the raging virus. On Monday it plans to unveil a series of quarantine measures against the pandemic.

First of all, the health authorities should make all-out efforts to prevent the Omicron variant from finding its way into the country. On Sunday, the country imposed an entry ban on all foreign arrivals from eight African countries, including South Africa where the new strain was first detected. The ban is necessary, but not sufficient. It is still unknown if the Omicron variant is more dangerous or contagious than the Delta stain. Yet it is necessary to take strong preventive measures before it is too late.

More importantly, the government must focus on treating critically ill COVID-19 patients to prevent their deaths. For this, it is urgent to increase hospital beds. Out of 714 beds set aside for seriously ill patients in hospitals in Seoul and its metropolitan area, 610 are already occupied. More than 1,200 patients are waiting for hospitalization. The problem is more serious in some provincial areas where beds are no longer available. If new infections continue to surge, there will be an acute shortage of hospital beds.

The authorities should also expand medical facilities and supply more doctors and nurses to better treat COVID-19 patients. The government promised to do so whenever there was a spike in new infections. But it has yet to deliver on this promise. It even failed to make thorough preparations for the "Living with COVID-19" program. It is, however, never too late to take appropriate measures to avoid a possible collapse of the healthcare system.

It is equally important to speed up vaccine booster shots, especially for the elderly and other high-risk groups. About 79 percent of South Koreans have so far been fully vaccinated. But it is tricky to achieve herd immunity because the efficacy of vaccines is on the decline as time goes by.

Most of all, the people might have to endure a potential return to stringent quarantine and social distancing rules. It is also necessary for the government to provide more financial support to small businesses and the self-employed who will be hit hard by the resurgence of the coronavirus. We have a long way to go before exiting the dark tunnel.

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