Korea’s new Covid-19 cases hit the lowest level in five-and-a-half months on Monday. However, experts warned a possible resurge this summer could be worse than last year’s, noting the nation has lifted almost all restrictions.
The nation’s new virus cases fell below 3,500 on Monday as the Covid-19 pandemic is in retreat, and fewer tests were conducted over the weekend.
The country added 3,429 new Covod-19 infections, including 114 from overseas, bringing the total caseload to 18,329,448, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said. Monday's tally is down 109 cases from a week ago and 2,704 from four weeks ago. Daily Covid-19 cases have declined steadily to stay below 10,000 since June 10, after hitting more than 620,000 in mid-March.
Of the 3,315 locally transmitted cases, Seoul accounted for 594 cases, with the surrounding Gyeonggi Province reporting 1,008 cases. In addition, there were 170 infections in Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul. The three areas accounted for 53.5 percent of the total infection cases.
The number of critically ill patients came to 68, up by 14 from a day ago.
The KDCA reported three more deaths from Covid-19, raising the death toll to 24,525. The fatality rate stood at 0.13 percent.
In April, the government removed most social distancing restrictions, except the indoor mask requirement, as new infections continued to fall. Still, the government extended the self-isolation mandate for Covid-19 patients until July 17 over concerns that eased rules could prompt another virus resurge.
However, experts continued to warn against the possibility of a resurge this summer, pointing to falling immunity and the spread of new variants.
“New Covid-19 cases may increase starting this or next week,” said Professor Chung Jae-hoon of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Gacheon University College of Medicine.
While ruling out the possibility of the possible resurge exerting a great influence on the number of severely ill patients or hospitalization, Cheong called for health officials to decide on stockpiling treatments, examining updated vaccines, and the degree of non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI) until then.
Officials agreed, citing the cases of some European countries, including Portugal, Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K., where the spread of Omicron sub-variants, such as BA4 and BA5, and the increase of population movement during summer vacation have combined to push up new Covid-19 infections.
“The quarantine authorities think this summer could serve as a fuse reigniting another Covid-19 wave,” said Lee Ki-il, a general coordinator at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters (CDSCH).
Lee cited the case of last summer when Korea experienced the fourth wave with the daily infection number soaring due to the spread of the Delta variant.
Some epidemiological experts pointed out that this summer's situation would be quite different from last summer – in good and bad ways. Last year, the nation’s herd immunity was low, but its social distancing regime was strict. This year, the immunity has risen, but the government has lifted almost all restrictions, they noted.
“Currently, Korea maintains a high immunity level not to allow the spread of any single variant or subvariant,” Professor Cheong said. “However, as the immunity falls, a highly contagious variant could emerge to trigger a resurge.”
He added that it is difficult to predict when the resurge would come or how big its scale might be, but the spread this summer could be larger than last year’s, showing a higher reinfection rate.
“The severity rate may be lower than that of the Omicron wave,” Cheong said. “However, if the number of infections increases, severe patients and Covid-19 deaths could sharply increase from now.”
Earlier in the day, the government said it could approve the first fully homegrown Covid-19 vaccine made by SK Bioscience this week, saying the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness were sufficient to win a nod based on the results of the immunogenicity clinical trial.