South Korea to distribute rapid tests as omicron breaks record

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea will distribute free rapid coronavirus test kits to schools and aged care facilities starting next week as it weathers a wave of infections unprecedented caused by the rapidly evolving omicron variant.

Health officials reported their highest daily jump in coronavirus infections on Wednesday with 90,443 new cases, breaking the previous one-day record set Tuesday of more than 33,000 cases. Some experts say the country could see daily cases of around 200,000 in March.

While omicron so far seemed less likely to cause serious illness or death compared to the delta variant, which rocked the country in December and early January, hospitalizations have increased amid the greater magnitude of the epidemic.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, Seoul’s No. 2 official behind President Moon Jae-in, said officials would start distributing free rapid test kits next week to kindergartens, elementary schools and aged care facilities, including nursing homes and neighborhood social centers, to enhance protection of unvaccinated children and high-risk groups.

Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye said schools would receive enough kits for students to use twice a week, but added that such tests would not be compulsory.

“We ask that students be tested at home with the rapid antigen test kits on Sunday and Wednesday evenings before coming to school,” Yoo said during a briefing. “When you test positive for these tests, please go to the local health unit to get PCR (lab) tests.”

The rapidly developing omicron push has left officials wondering whether the country should maintain strict social distancing rules, including a six-person limit on private social gatherings and a 9 p.m. curfew for restaurants.

Struggling business owners have called for the measures to be scrapped, questioning whether they are meaningful when cases are mounting rapidly.

But health experts warn that easing social distancing may allow transmissions to spiral even further out of control, further stretching exhausted health and government workers and threatening high-risk groups and children under 12 year olds who have not yet been vaccinated.

The country has already eased quarantine restrictions considerably from this month to avoid major disruptions to workplaces and essential services, which can occur if large numbers of people are constantly quarantined.

Transmissions are also feared to worsen as campaigning and political rallies began on Tuesday ahead of the March 9 presidential elections.

Kim said officials would take into account both the growing economic strain of the pandemic and the threats posed by the omicron push before announcing new social distancing measures on Friday.

Although omicron more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or have had COVID-19 in the past, experts say vaccination and booster shots still offer strong protection against serious illness and death.

More than 86% of South Koreans have been fully vaccinated and 58% have received boosters. Health officials plan to offer a fourth vaccine in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities starting later this month.

The country also this week began offering Novavax’s coronavirus vaccine to hospitals and public health offices, adding another tool in a mass vaccination campaign that relied primarily on mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

Officials hope the Maryland company’s protein vaccine, which is similar to vaccines used for years against influenza or hepatitis B, will appeal to people who are hesitant to use other vaccines based on newer technologies.

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