South Korea is battling a surge of severe and breakthrough COVID-19 cases after loosening social distancing restrictions at the beginning of November. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
SEOUL, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- Less than a month into a phase of loosened social distancing restrictions, South Korea has seen a spike in breakthrough and severe COVID-19 cases, raising concerns about hospital capacity and prompting officials to speed up a booster vaccination rollout.
The country reported its second-highest daily case total on Wednesday, with 3,187 new infections, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. Critically ill patients reached a record 522, topping the previous high of 495 set the day before.
At a briefing with international media in Seoul on Wednesday, officials said they had anticipated a surge in cases after the country began its "Living with COVID-19" scheme on Nov. 1, easing guidelines on the size of gatherings and allowing restaurants, bars and cafes to stay open later.
"We are seeing a rise in cases but they're within the boundaries of what we expected," Son Young-Rae, spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said. "Currently, we don't see the need to go back to the stricter regulations."
However, he noted that breakthrough and severe cases have been concentrated among the elderly, who were among the first in the country to get vaccinated, prompting a need to expedite booster doses.
"The waning effect [of the vaccine's efficacy] came more quickly than we anticipated," Son said.
Health authorities announced on Wednesday that they would shorten the interval between full vaccination and the booster shot from six months to four months for people over 60 years old as well as patients at nursing care facilities and healthcare workers. Under the new measures, the booster rollout for these groups is expected to be completed by December.
People in their 50s and workers including police, firefighters and soldiers will be able to get a booster shot five months after their last dose.
Some 84% of the seriously ill patients reported on Wednesday are 60 or older, according to the KDCA. Breakthrough infections among the fully vaccinated accounted for 56% of total cases in the first week of November.
Concern has also been rising among officials over the capacity of South Korea's hospitals to handle the rising numbers of severe cases. The occupancy rate of intensive care units for COVID-19 patients was at 62.6% nationwide on Tuesday but reached 80.6% in the Seoul metropolitan area.
The KDCA has said it would consider implementing emergency response measures if bed occupancy surpassed 75%. Officials said Wednesday that current conditions don't yet call for rolling back the relaxed distancing guidelines, which were intended to give a boost to small businesses that have suffered the greatest impact of pandemic restrictions.
"When you look at the situation nationwide, we don't think that it's too severe," Kwon Jun-wook, director of the Korea National Institute of Health, said at the briefing. "In the Seoul metropolitan area, we see some rising cases in numbers and we do expect that in the older populations and high-risk groups there could be more transmissions. We're looking at all of the risk indicators and monitoring them weekly."
After a slow start, South Korea's vaccination rates are now among the world's highest, with 78.4% of the population fully vaccinated and 81.9% receiving at least one dose. Among adults ages 18 and above, 90.6% are fully vaccinated.
The KDCA reported 21 deaths on Wednesday, raising South Korea's total since the beginning of the pandemic to 3,158 -- a fraction of the death toll in the United States or Europe, where many countries have also seen surges in breakthrough cases.
Officials plan to evaluate the impact of the "Living with COVID-19" scheme for two weeks in December before deciding whether to move on to the next phase of the three-part plan. South Korea aims to fully lift antivirus restrictions by the end of February.