Ahn Cheol-soo (center) speaks during a meeting of Yoon Suk-yeol presidential transition committee`s COVID-19 team. (Yonhap)
Ending social distancing in two weeks may be “hasty,” a COVID-19 adviser on President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s transition committee said Monday, raising concerns over the government’s intention to dial back protocols.
Dr. Jung Ki-suck, one of the COVID-19 experts on the presidential transition committee, said during an interview with a public broadcaster that “lifting restrictions completely two weeks from now seems a bit hasty.”
On keeping mask mandates indoors, he said the transition team and the government were “on the same page.”
“Indoor masking needs to stay until the very end,” said Jung, who chiefed the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the aftermath of the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2016.
On the public health officials’ stance that social distancing was “no longer effective,” he said that may be true at this stage. “We needed that intervention a while back when the fire was starting. Now fires have already spread.”
He said that although there were tentative signs of the omicron wave receding, the absolute number of patients was still high. Hospitals were still struggling to cope with an influx of patients on top of growing transmissions among the staff.
“What happens is the quality of care provided to patients becomes compromised, which can affect in-hospital survival rates,” he said. “This is partly being reflected in the recent rise in excess deaths.”
He said until the omicron wave is over, the government has the responsibility to save as many lives as possible and to keep more people from falling severely sick.
Jung also warned of “another variant of concern coming our way that will require us to keep our front lines strong and safe.” “There are already new variants being reported. The question is whether any of them will have the potential to become as threatening.”
Son Young-rae, the Ministry of Health and Welfare spokesperson, reiterated during a closed-door briefing Monday that the ongoing omicron wave “has reached its peak.” Hospital admissions have been on a decline since late March, and deaths “have not risen as steeply as anticipated by experts,” he said.
“As the situation stabilizes I believe we’ll be ready for an overhaul of social distancing strategy.”
The ministry spokesperson earlier said that the omicron wave in the country was “a process of moving toward endemic from pandemic.” Features of omicron, at once milder and more transmissible, rendered social distancing “inefficient,” he has said.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who is leading Moon Jae-in administration’s COVID-19 response headquarters, said Friday that the country may be facing the final two weeks of social distancing.
Kim announced that from Monday, the limit on private gatherings will be relaxed to 10 people at a time from the previous eight, and that the nightly curfew on stores will be pushed back by two hours to midnight. These measures are set to last for the next two weeks until April 17.
Previously, Yoon’s COVID-19 team criticized the Moon Jae-in administration’s handling of the pandemic as “letting politics dictate the science.”
Leading the team, Ahn Cheol-soo -- an ex-presidential contender who merged candidacies with Yoon days before the election -- told a March 22 press conference that the country’s fight against COVID-19 was “hampered by the current administration’s persistent tendency to let popular opinions, not science, decide the course of policy decisions.”
As urgent priorities, Ahn has called for expanding access to care for high-risk patients recovering from home; improving transparency of COVID-19-related data including vaccine injury statistics; enhancing compensation for vaccine injuries; conducting mass infection surveys and publishing antibody data; and increasing supply of therapeutics like Paxlovid.
Ahn told Monday’s meeting of the transition committee’s COVID-19 team that a separate institution will be set up when the next administration comes into office for “coordinating a preemptive response to the possibilities of another wave in the fall and winter.”
On March 28, Dr. Peck Kyong-ran, an expert on the presidential transition committee’s COVID-19 team, told reporters it was “hard to characterize Korea’s pandemic response as a failure or success in retrospect.”
“Responding to a new infectious disease is a process of dealing with uncertainties,” she said.
“What matters is how well experts’ advice is listened to by decision-makers, and then subsequently reflected in policies.”
Peck said over the pandemic the Moon administration has shown “a pattern of pursuing policy moves that were not supported by metrics, which resulted in public harm.”
“This may be an area where our response needs improvement,” she said.
By Kim Arin (email@example.com