South Korea to roll out Covid-19 booster shots for elderly and vaccines for teens, pregnant women

SEOUL – South Korea will roll out Covid-19 booster shots for the elderly and vaccinate teenagers and pregnant women from next month as part of efforts to better protect high-risk groups amid a surge in infection numbers.

The country reported 2,383 new cases on Monday (Sept 27), bringing the total to 303,553.

This marked a drop from last Saturday’s record high of 3,272, but was still worrying as health authorities have warned that numbers may rise further in days ahead.

The spike was blamed on the more infectious Delta variant spreading through an increase in travelling and social gatherings last week due to a five-day-long break over Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving Day.

Experts said the daily figures can soon hit the 4,000 range, especially with more people expected to travel during two long weekends in early October.

Daily numbers have hovered above 1,000 for over 80 days despite the highest Level 4 social distancing measures being implemented to fight the fourth wave of the pandemic.

The health authorities have urged people to refrain from gathering and will announce on Friday new anti-virus measures to start next week.

Seven months into its vaccination drive, South Korea has managed to give at least one shot to 38.09 million people, or 74.2 per cent of its population of 51.3 million. About 45.3 per cent of them are fully vaccinated with two jabs.

The country aims to achieve herd immunity by the end of November with over 70 per cent of the population fully vaccinated and is pushing for a “living with Covid-19” plan that will allow people to resume living a normal life with eased restrictions.

On Monday, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) announced that booster shots of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for high-risk groups will be rolled out from Oct 25, with those aged above 59 and medical workers being the first in line.

To qualify, they must have received their second shot of the vaccine six months ago.

According to the KDCA, those who had two shots of the Pfizer vaccine will get the same brand for their booster shots. But it is not decided yet which brand will be given to those who were inoculated with AstraZeneca or Janssen, or if they will be allowed to choose.

There are also plans to vaccinate about 2.77 million minors aged 12 to 17, starting from Oct 18. They will receive two shots of the Pfizer vaccine over three weeks as this is the only brand approved for minors.

This age group accounted for 3,100 Covid-19 cases in August alone, according to the KDCA.

While the risk is low, young children and teenagers who are infected “can still suffer from severe illness” and be “seriously affected mentally and socially due to isolation and reduced confidence”, the agency said.

Pregnant women can also get inoculated from Oct 18. About 136,000 of them are eligible for shots. The KDCA noted that pregnant women who test positive are six times more likely to develop a serious illness compared with women who are not pregnant.

Retiree Oh Sang-sook, who got his second Pfizer dose on May 19, told The Straits Times that he will get the booster shot when his turn comes.

“There are a lot of unconfirmed rumours and concerns circulating about the side effects of vaccination, and those who have concerns probably didn’t get vaccinated in the first place, what more get a booster shot,” said Mr Oh, 81.

“But vaccines are recommended by doctors and the KDCA so it’s better to get one. We should trust medicine and science.”