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Concerns rise as cases surge among teens, elderly

Infections rise among unvaccinated teens, older population, as breakthrough infections may hamper return to normal

Coronavirus tests are conducted Tuesday on all students at a high school in Nam-gu, Gwangju, where cases were recently confirmed. (Yonhap)
Coronavirus tests are conducted Tuesday on all students at a high school in Nam-gu, Gwangju, where cases were recently confirmed. (Yonhap)
The number of new COVID-19 patients continues to top 2,000 daily, with more than half being teenagers and senior citizens, casting a pall over the nation’s plans for a step-by-step transition to normalcy.

At Wednesday midnight, the number of new daily cases that day marked 2,482, with 2,457 of them locally transmitted. Among them, 29.5 percent were aged 60 or older and 22.4 percent were teenagers or younger.

Over the past week, the daily average of confirmed patients under the age of 19 was around 480, and patients aged 60 or older marked about 568, accounting for more than half of the total cases.

The surge in the age groups is thought to have been fueled by increasing face-to-face activities of minors as schools reopen, and due to falling efficacy of vaccines in older populations who were inoculated more than six months ago, experts say.

As schools are on track to return to normalcy step by step from late this month, mass infections in schools are piling on all over the country, including in the cities of Seoul, Incheon and Gwangju as well as other provinces.

But the vaccination rate of minors remains low due to anxiety over side effects.

Of the 2,768,386 people aged 12 to 17 eligible for vaccination in the fourth quarter of this year, only 10,660, or 0.6 percent, are now fully vaccinated.

The reservation rate for vaccinations for ages 16 and 17 closed at 65.4 percent. The prebooking rate for 12-15, which ends Nov. 12, is currently under 30 percent.

Senior health official Lee Sang-won has urged teenagers, who are excluded from vaccination certification or the vaccine pass, to thoroughly follow quarantine measures.

As for older people, concerns rise as they are at higher risk of breakthrough infections as well as death.

The number of deaths on Wednesday marked 24, the largest figure since Jan. 12. All of the deceased were aged 60 or older.

At a nursing hospital in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, 83 people have been confirmed as infected over the past month after vaccination. Eight of them have died. All of the confirmed patients who died were elderly and suffering from underlying diseases.

Eight people at a nursing hospital on Jeju Island, including workers and residents, were infected after getting their shots.

As a countermeasure, authorities announced Wednesday that it would implement additional vaccinations -- booster shots -- for workers and residents in nursing hospitals, facilities and mental hospitals earlier than scheduled.

Workers are also obligated to undergo PCR tests for COVID-19 once a week, and both residents and visitors must be vaccinated.

Both quarantine authorities and infectious disease experts view that the number of COVID-19 patients will inevitably increase for the time being due to the recovery of daily life and expectations under the “living with COVID-19” scheme.

Chun Eun-mi, a professor at Ewha Womans University Medical Center, said, “At this rate, the number of infected people will be far over 4,000 to 5,000. The tension has quickly eased and the year-end and New Year holidays are at a crisis.”

However, authorities believe the spread will stabilize at a certain point if people follow quarantine rules such as wearing masks and washing their hands, as the vaccination rate rises.

Health official Son Young-rae said some countries find a balance point and show a phenomenon in which the size of the epidemic no longer increases, or decreases slightly.

As of Wednesday at midnight, the cumulative number of people in Korea who had received at least one shot for COVID-19 was 41.33 million, or 80.5 percent of the total population. The total number of people who had completed the second round of vaccinations increased to 38.97 million, or about 75.9 percent. The number of booster shots increased by 56,527 on Wednesday to a cumulative 229,413.

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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