South Korea is strengthening protective measures against the spread of COVID-19 for travelers from China, but stronger measures including a fresh drive to encourage vaccinations for the elderly are needed in order to stem the winter surge of infections linked to a new subvariant.
The country added 64,106 new coronavirus cases Thursday, falling for the second consecutive day, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). But the overall level of spread is still high and the government stays alert after reporting 81,056 confirmed cases Tuesday, as concerns remain about a potential surge of COVID-19 during the winter.
One factor that grabbed the attention of the health authorities is the rapid rise in the number of critically ill patients. Even though the figure dropped to 517 Thursday, down from 623 the previous day, it remains concerning that the number had been over 600 for the past four days.
Reflecting on the seriousness of the situation triggered the government’s new policy that began to require COVID-19 testing for arrivals from China on Tuesday. Under the new quarantine policy, all arrivals from China are obliged to go through a PCR test within the first day of their entry and must remain in separate facilities until the test results come out.
These quarantine steps may cause inconvenience to travelers from China, but the Korean government has no other viable choice but to make testing mandatory given the worsening COVID-19 situation there.
Particularly worrisome is that China is reluctant to reveal accurate data about its COVID-19 infections. With China’s opaque data regarding the coronavirus, traveling Chinese citizens and those foreign business people and tourists departing from China could undermine the already loosened quarantine measures around the world.
To prevent the surge in China spreading further, the US, Japan and India have stepped up quarantine policy targeting travelers from China. France, Spain and Italy earlier said they would introduce similar controls on visitors from China. The EU is also set to impose pre-departure COVID-19 tests on those coming from China in the next coming days.
The addition of required testing for passengers from China comes as China is finally lifting a lengthy lockdown saddled with a host of problems and complaints -- a move that is believed to have resulted from a rise in infections in China.
Korean authorities are rightly worried that infections through travelers from China could begin a new wave of a COVID-19 surge. Media outlets in Korea reported that PCR tests on those coming from China resulted in 136 confirmed cases in just two days -- a worrisome infection rate of one in five that could rise further if more travelers undergo tests.
Given that other test results on those who used entry points other than airports are yet to come, the overall ratio of infection for those coming from China is likely to increase.
The government’s latest move to strengthen quarantine steps on travelers from China is timely and appropriate, but there have been some missteps. For instance, the government’s requirement for a negative COVID-19 test did not initially include arrivals from Hong Kong and Macao, even though the number of arrivals from Hong Kong surged to over 44,000 in the past month, and a surge in infections within the region has been widely reported.
The government belatedly announced it would fix this loophole by requiring testing for those coming from Hong Kong and Macao starting Saturday, but experts point out that the country’s quarantine system might already be exposed to new infection variants due to the five-day absence of the testing requirement policy.
Worse, the KDCA’s COVID-19 information management system was paralyzed Tuesday, making it temporarily impossible for local health authorities to check information on travelers from China and other countries.
Given that the country detected the new omicron subvariant of XBB 1.5 on Dec. 8, a strain that is spreading around the world with more resistance to immune responses, the government should come up with more comprehensive follow-up measures for arrivals from China as well as other countries to prevent another surge.