Over 5,200 get Covid-19 jabs as South Korea kicks off vaccination drive

A police convoy escorting a truck carrying the first shipment of Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine, which arrived at Incheon International Airport yesterday. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SEOUL - A 61-year-old woman working in a nursing home was among the first in South Korea to be vaccinated against Covid-19 on Friday (Feb 26) morning, as the country rolled out its vaccination programme with the hope of achieving herd immunity by November.

Over 5,200 staff and residents at 213 long-term care and rehabilitation facilities, who are below the age of 65, were the first to benefit from the programme.

They received the vaccine developed by British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca and Oxford University which is being produced locally in partnership with Korean firm SK Bioscience.

The South Korean government has secured enough vaccines for 79 million people - more than enough to cover its 51.8 million population.

AstraZeneca started delivering the two-dose vaccine from Wednesday and over the next four days there will be enough stock for 785,000 people in more than 1,900 nursing homes, rehabilitation centres and other long-term care facilities across the country.

Only those below the age of 65 are eligible to be vaccinated because of concerns over a lack of clinical data on the efficacy of the vaccine on those older who will have to wait until May.

From Saturday, medical workers caring for Covid-19 patients will receive a separate batch of vaccines from American drugmaker Pfizer.

The vaccines, enough to cover some 58,500 people, were flown in by Korean Airlines on Friday, as part of the World Health Organisation's vaccine-sharing project Covax.

They will be administered at five state-run vaccination facilities, as they require storage at ultra low temperatures.

The vaccine rollout in South Korea came as Covid-19 infections continued to mount in the country.

The country reported 406 cases on Friday, due to growing numbers from cluster outbreaks in several places including a hospital in central Seoul, a plastic factory in Namyangju, north of Seoul, and a religious facility in Bucheon, west of Seoul.

The total tally of cases in the country stood at 88,922 and the death toll at 1,585.

The government on Friday extended social distancing rules, including a ban on social gatherings of more than four people, for another two weeks.

Senior health official Sohn Young-rae said the authorities must be careful not to ease social distancing too quickly even though vaccinations had begun.

"If we let our guard down, it is possible that infections can surge again," he said at a briefing on Friday.

Ms Kim Jeong-ok, 57, who works in a healthcare centre for the elderly, told reporters that she felt nauseous for 15 minutes after getting the vaccine.

But she said that she had "great hopes" for the vaccination programme because Britain's infection rate had fallen to a quarter of pre-vaccine levels.

"We need to have faith," she was cited as saying.

Around 55,000 healthcare workers in coronavirus treatment facilities are due to receive the vaccine starting from Feb 27. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Other healthcare workers expressed optimism that widespread vaccination could bring an end to the pandemic.

Health authorities said 93.6 per cent of people eligible for the first batch of vaccines, most of them healthcare workers, agreed to receive it.

But hesitancy remains high among the public.

A recent survey by the Korea Society Opinion Institute showed that only 45.8 per cent of 1,020 respondents, aged 18 and above, were willing to be vaccinated. Most were worried over insufficient clinical trials and side effects.

Another 45.7 per cent said they would delay taking it, while 5.1 per cent would refuse the shots completely.

To ease concerns, the government has said it would provide compensation to those who suffer serious side effects and cover the cost of treatment and hospitalisation.

Those who become severely handicapped or die from the vaccine can claim up to 430 million won (S$507,244) in damages.

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