South Korea will no longer use GPS monitoring to enforce quarantines and will also end daily checkup calls to low-risk coronavirus patients as a fast-developing Omicron surge overwhelms health and government workers.
The speed of transmissions has made it impossible to maintain a tight and proactive medical response, Jeong Eun-kyeong, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said Monday.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 38,691 new cases of the virus — a nine-fold increase from the levels seen in mid-January, when Omicron became the country’s dominant strain. Jeong said the country may see daily jumps of 130,000 or 170,000 by late February.
South Korea had been seen as a success story during the earlier part of the pandemic after it contained infections and hospitalizations more effectively than most countries in the West. Health authorities worked closely with biotech companies to ramp up laboratory tests and aggressively mobilized technological tools and public workers to trace contacts and enforce quarantines.
But the country’s strengths have been rendered irrelevant by the unprecedented spike in infections fuelled by the Omicron variant, which has stretched health and administrative resources.
Officials had already been forced to expand at-home treatments, reduce quarantine periods and reshape testing policy around rapid antigen test kits, despite concerns over their reliability, to save laboratory tests for people in their 60s or older and those with existing medical conditions who are at higher risk for serious illness.
The plans to further ease the monitoring and quarantines came as health and public workers struggle to keep up with the near 150,000 people being treated at home for mild or moderate symptoms, which have led to delays in drug prescriptions and has paralyzed contact tracing.
Officials say public workers who had been monitoring virus carriers through GPS-enabled smartphone apps will now be assigned to help with at-home treatments. Virus carriers will no longer be required to report to local health offices when they leave home to visit doctors, while their cohabiting family members can now freely go out to buy food, medicine and other essentials.
Low-risk virus carriers, who are in their 50s or younger and have no pre-existing medical conditions, will now be left to monitor their conditions on their own and contact local hospitals if their symptoms worsen. Health workers will still make daily checkup calls to people in their 60s and older or those with pre-existing medical conditions.
“We are planning to transition toward an anti-virus strategy that’s concentrated on maintaining essential social functions while dealing with huge numbers of infections and people placed under quarantine,” Jeong said during a government briefing.
-From The Associated Press, last updated at 7:20 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
With lab-based testing capacity deeply strained and increasingly restricted, experts say true case counts are likely far higher than reported. Hospitalization data at the regional level is also evolving, with several provinces saying they will report figures that separate the number of people in hospital because of COVID-19 from those in hospital for another medical issue who also test positive for COVID-19.
For more information on what is happening in your community — including details on outbreaks, testing capacity and local restrictions — click through to the regional coverage below.
You can also read more from the Public Health Agency of Canada, which provides a detailed look at every region — including seven-day average test positivity rates — in its daily epidemiological updates.
In Central Canada, venues across Quebec’s cultural sector are set to partially reopen Monday as the province eases health restrictions put in place to contain COVID-19. Places of worship, entertainment and sports venues are allowed to reopen after being shut down since December, with capacity limits in place and proof of vaccination required for entry.
The shift came as the province on Monday reported 2,425 hospitalizations — up by 14 from a day earlier — with 178 people in the province’s intensive care units. A COVID-19 update posted online showed an additional 20 deaths.
Both Quebec and Ontario are engaged in gradual easing of restrictions, but the mayor of Quebec’s largest city wants more detail from the province on how, exactly, that process will unfold. Mayor Valérie Plante said Montreal is a “cultural metropolis” and economic engine — adding that businesses and the cultural sector need more information to plan for spring and summer.
In Ontario, long-term care residents can start taking social trips and see more caregivers as of Monday. The loosened visitor restrictions come after more than a month of strict rules aimed at slowing the Omicron variant.
Starting Monday, the number of designated caregivers per resident increases from two to four, though only two can visit at a time. Residents who have had at least three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are now allowed to resume social day trips.
The number of people in hospital due to COVID-19 in the hard-hit province fell Monday by 75 to 2,155, according to Ontario’s COVID-19 dashboard. Health officials said 486 people were in the province’s intensive care units. The update came as the province recorded 11 additional deaths.
In Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador officials are easing some COVID-19 restrictions as of Monday. The shift allows businesses like gyms and restaurant dining rooms to reopen with capacity restrictions.
In the Prairie provinces, starting this week, Saskatchewan will stop issuing daily reports of COVID-19 cases, which has become known as the COVID dashboard. It will instead shift to reporting the information weekly on Thursdays.
The province announced the decision last week as part of a number of changes it says are occurring as Saskatchewan prepares to manage COVID-19 in the long term. Premier Scott Moe has said the Saskatchewan Party government will remove pandemic restrictions soon, but he hasn’t released a date.
In the North, health officials in Yukon said as of Monday, young people between the age of 12 and 17 can receive a booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine, provided they are six months past their second dose.
“Immunocompromised children aged five to 11 who have already received their primary series will be able to receive a third dose,” a statement from territorial officials said.
-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 11:55 a.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of early Monday morning, roughly 395.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracking tool. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.7 million.
In the Asia-Pacific region, authorities in China’s southwestern city of Baise ordered residents to stay at home from Monday and avoid unnecessary travel as they enforced curbs that are among the toughest in the nation’s tool box to fight rising local infections of COVID-19.
The outbreak in Baise, which has a population of about 3.6 million and borders Vietnam, is tiny by global standards, but the curbs, including a ban on non-essential trips in and out, follow a national guideline to quickly contain any flare-ups.
The effort takes on extra urgency during the staging of the Winter Olympics, which began on Friday and run until Feb. 20, as well as a busy travel season for the Lunar New Year holiday.
Meanwhile, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Monday he wants to speed up the country’s COVID-19 booster shot program to one million shots a day by the end of the month — about double the current pace.
In the Americas, Honduran President Xiomara Castro has tested positive for COVID-19, she said on Sunday, adding that she has mild symptoms and will be working in isolation.
In Africa, South Africa is seeing more cases of the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron and is monitoring it, but there is no clear sign that BA.2 is substantially different from the original Omicron strain, a senior scientist said. Health officials in South Africa on Sunday reported 1,752 new cases of COVID-19 and 18 additional deaths.
Nigeria has received two million doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine from Finland, Greece and Slovenia, with more EU donations set to arrive in the coming weeks, government officials said on Monday. The vaccines are currently in a cold room at the airport of the west African nation’s capital, Abuja.
“This batch of vaccines will expire in August 2023. So we have ample time to administer [the shots],” Faisal Shuaib, executive director of Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency, told reporters at an airport news conference.
In the Middle East, hard-hit Iran on Monday registered more than 100 new deaths from COVID-19 over a 24-hour period as the aggressive Omicron variant spreads in the country, state TV reported. The report said 104 patients died from the disease since Sunday, when the Islamic Republic announced 85 new deaths over a day’s time.
Meanwhile, health officials in Saudi Arabia on Sunday reported 3,260 additional cases of COVID-19 over 24 hours and one additional death.
-From Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 10:45 a.m. ET