S. Korea expands rapid testing amid record-breaking COVID infections

South Korea has begun enforcing a new coronavirus testing policy centered on rapid testing as health officials reported a record number of new infections after the New Year holiday

The 22,907 new cases reported by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency marked the second day in a row with over 20,000 new infections and about a fivefold increase from daily cases seen in mid-January, when the highly contagious omicron variant first became the country’s dominant strain .

The new test regimen, which started on Thursday, expands the use of rapid testing and is aimed at saving PCR laboratory tests for high-risk groups, including people in their 60s and older or those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Some experts have opposed the new policy, saying that rapid testing is not sensitive enough to reliably detect omicron infections and raises concerns that transmissions could worsen if people returning false negative tests continue to venture in public.

But health officials say the country needs to concentrate laboratory tests and other vital medical resources because of the rate of omicron-driven infections. Officials are also expanding home care and have eased quarantine periods for virus carriers and people who come in close contact with them, citing concerns about major disruptions in workplaces and essential services if a large number of people are constantly quarantined.

While the omicron spread much faster than previous versions of the virus, the number of hospitalizations and deaths so far has been lower than cases associated with the delta, senior KDCA official Lim Sook-young said during a briefing. Virus patients in their 60s or older accounted for about 8% of recent infections, she said, possibly reflecting protection from booster shots.

More than 85% of South Korea’s 51 million people have been fully vaccinated, and more than 53% have received booster shots.

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