Omicron set to become dominant strain this week

People wait in line to get swabbed for the coronavirus at a testing center near Seoul City Hall, Wednesday. Newsis

New infections soar to over 5,000 for first time in 20 days

By Lee Hyo-jin

The government has expanded home treatment of COVID-19 patients to those infected with the Omicron variant starting Wednesday. The move comes as the country braces for a fresh wave of infections involving the highly contagious variant which is expected to become the dominant strain within this week.

The authorities have also urged foreign residents to receive booster shots, as the infection rate among them has been rising consistently in recent weeks.

According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), the country saw 5,805 new infection cases on Tuesday, rising above 5,000 for the first time since Dec. 30, when the figure stood at 5,034. The number of critically-ill COVID-19 patients reached 532 on the same day, with 74 deaths, raising the death toll to 6,452

Health authorities attributed the surge to the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which recently accounted for 25 percent of total infections.

"The Omicron variant is expected to become the dominant strain within this week. And once it does, as we've seen in many other countries, it will substantially speed up infections," said Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum during a COVID-19 response meeting, Wednesday.

"As announced last week, the government will roll out new measures in response to the variant, focusing on speed and efficacy," he added.

Under the new measures, people infected with the Omicron variant will be placed under home treatment starting Wednesday, reserving hospitalization for elderly people and those suffering from chronic illnesses.

PCR testing, which is currently freely available to anyone, will be focused on priority groups, including the elderly population, people with underlying medical conditions and those who have come in close contact with a COVID-19 patient. Rapid antigen tests, also known as self-test kits, will be offered for less urgent cases.

Infections among foreigners on the rise

In addition to the Omicron spread, health authorities voiced concerns about growing infections among foreign residents.

A foreign resident receives a COVID-19 vaccine at an inoculation center in Songpa District, Seoul, in this Sept. 30, 2021 photo. Newsis

In the second week of January, infections among foreign nationals accounted for 14.2 percent of the total, a significantly high rate given that only around 3.8 percent of Korea's total population are foreign residents.

The booster shot inoculation rate among non-Koreans was 28.7 percent, which is lower than that of Korean nationals at 44.4 percent. Among the foreigners recently infected with COVID-19, 68 percent were found to be unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, according to the health ministry.

Against this backdrop, related ministries are ramping up efforts to encourage foreigners to receive an additional dose.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a meeting with 94 foreign envoys, Jan. 14, to ask for their cooperation in encouraging foreign residents to receive booster shots and to urge them to refrain from private gatherings during the Lunar New Year holiday which runs from Jan.29 through Feb. 2.

The ministry has also requested the U.S. embassy to disclose positive cases among U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) personnel on a daily basis, where 1,599 cases were reported between Jan. 4 to 10. But the USFK is currently not offering further details other than weekly data.

The Ministry of Justice said about 200 government officials will conduct inspections on entertainment facilities across the country frequently visited by foreigners to check on violations of social distancing measures.

The labor ministry, for its part, will continue to distribute vaccination guidelines translated in 16 languages to businesses hiring foreign employees, while the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family will utilize multicultural family support centers to encourage foreign residents to get vaccinated.

Lee Hyo-jin

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