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Omicron variant feared to be spreading nationwide

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A notice attached at a library on Hankuk University of Foreign Studies campus in Seoul, Tuesday, reads that it will operate in a limit manner after it was confirmed a student infected with the Omicron variant visited the facility. Yonhap
A notice attached at a library on Hankuk University of Foreign Studies campus in Seoul, Tuesday, reads that it will operate in a limit manner after it was confirmed a student infected with the Omicron variant visited the facility. Yonhap

3 foreign students in Seoul confirmed to be infected with Omicron

By Lee Hyo-jin

The health authorities here are moving to a higher state of alert as it is suspected the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 has begun spreading across the country, including Seoul, following the first cases being reported here Dec. 1.

Three foreign college students, studying at Seoul National University (SNU), Kyung Hee University and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS), respectively, have tested positive for the variant, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), Tuesday.

These are the first cases of the Omicron variant confirmed in the capital, following multiple cases detected in Incheon, Gyeonggi Province, and Jincheon in North Chungcheong Province.

The KDCA said the three students attended a religious event held at a church in Incheon, Nov. 28, which created an infection cluster linked to the first cases of the Omicron variant in the country.

Following the confirmation, SNU has placed all people who came in close contact with the infected student under self-quarantine, and plans to conduct rapid PCR tests on all students staying at the dormitory where the patient resides.

Kyung Hee University has recommended students living on the same floor in the dormitory as the patient to preemptively undergo coronavirus tests, while HUFS has decided to move all classes online until Dec. 14.

According to the KDCA, the country added 12 more Omicron cases, Monday, raising the total caseload to 36. Of the dozen new cases, three were confirmed in travelers who arrived from South Africa, while nine were local transmissions. Among the 36, 25 were foreign nationals.

The agency said it is conducting genome sequencing tests on seven additional suspected cases.

A medical worker collects sample for a coronavirus test at a testing center near Seoul Station, Tuesday. Yonhap
A medical worker collects sample for a coronavirus test at a testing center near Seoul Station, Tuesday. Yonhap

The health authorities expressed concerns that the variant may become the dominant strain in the country, replacing the Delta one.

"The Omicron variant is becoming the dominant strain in South Africa at a rapid pace, while governments in the European Union and the United States believe it is highly possible for it be the dominant strain in their countries, and such a view can be applied to the situation in Korea," Lee Sang-won, a senior official at the KDCA, said during a briefing Monday.

While early overseas reports show that patients confirmed with the Omicron variant suffer mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, Lee warned against drawing any premature conclusions, saying that more data were needed.

For Monday, the KDCA reported 4,954 new coronavirus infections, with the number of critically ill patients rising to 774 ― the latter being yet another new high.

Gov't encourages foreign residents to get vaccinated

Adding to the concerns is the relatively low vaccination rate among foreign residents, as many foreigners were found to have attended the Nov. 28 church event in Incheon.

According to the KDCA, as of Monday, 76 percent of 1.96 million foreign nationals here have been fully vaccinated, lower than the 90 percent rate for the total adult population. And the vaccination rate differs from region to region, with that in Yeonsu District in Incheon, where the infection cluster arose, standing at 61.8 percent.

"We have been strongly recommending foreign nationals, regardless of their legal status, to get vaccinated. But there seems to be difficulties in communication due to the language barrier, and some are hesitant to receive the shots out of concerns over disadvantages," senior KDCA official Park Young-joon said during a briefing.

The government stressed that the identity of unregistered foreigners will not be handed over to the immigration authorities upon vaccination. The Ministry of Justice, for its part, is offering incentives to unregistered foreigners who are fully vaccinated, exempting them from fines that are imposed when they leave the country.


Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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