SEOUL - Some 100 days after rolling out its Covid-19 vaccination programme, South Korea is seeing high take-up rates and is on track to achieve herd immunity by November, despite initial public scepticism.
A record-high 875,000 people were inoculated on Monday (June 7), bringing the total number who received their first shots to 8.45 million, or 16.3 per cent of the 51.8 million population.
The daily figure has been rising since May 27, a day after the government dangled attractive incentives, such as allowing those who have been vaccinated at least once to roam outdoors without wearing a mask and letting them have family gatherings of more than four people from July.
The move was aimed at encouraging mass vaccination, and it has worked.
A high of 640,000 people got their first shots on May 27 - more than double the previous record of 307,000 on April 30.
President Moon Jae-in voiced optimism on Monday that more than 14 million people can get their first jabs by end-June – higher than the earlier estimated 12 million – and 36 million by September. Some 36 million, or 70 per cent of the population – must be fully vaccinated with two doses by November to achieve herd immunity. The figure was 2.29 million as at yesterday.
Speaking at an inter-agency meeting, Mr Moon said the government's goal is to enable people to have a "safe and comfortable" summer vacation and gather with family without wearing masks during the Chuseok holiday in September.
He also praised the country's health and quarantine authorities for putting in a lot of hard work to "overcome public distrust over the late introduction of vaccines in a short time and turning the atmosphere around".
South Korea reported 435 new cases of the coronavirus on Tuesday, bringing the total number of infections to 145,091. Daily figures have remained in the 400-700 range for the past few weeks.
Launched on Feb 26, the vaccination programme has faced numerous hurdles such as acquisition delay and supply shortage. There were also problems with the country's first available AstraZeneca vaccine, which was suspended temporarily due to links to a rare type of blood clot.
The supply shortage has since eased with different types of vaccines coming in, such as one million doses of Johnson & Johnson's Janssen vaccine supplied by the United States for South Korea's military, to be administered from Thursday.
Inoculations with Moderna's vaccine could start as early as next week, according to health authorities.
South Koreans are not allowed to choose the vaccine they want.
Dr Choi Jae-wook, preventive medicine specialist from Korea University's College of Medicine, said the government is now on target to inoculate more than 80 per cent of its elderly population by the end of June.
"People were still sceptical a month ago, but the mood has changed and many people are trying to register on waiting lists to get vaccinated," he told The Straits Times.
He attributed this to more types of vaccines available, not just AstraZeneca which people were wary of due to blood clots and lower efficacy rate - 70 per cent compared with Pfizer's 95 per cent and Moderna's 94 per cent.
However, more needs to be done to address the issue of compensation for severe side effects and deaths linked to vaccination, to further ease people's concerns about getting jabbed, said Dr Choi.
"Health professionals including myself have asked the government to expand its compensation package and provide more compensation for victims, so as to provide more protection for the people," he added.
Vaccinations for those aged 60-64 started on Monday.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said 48.2 per cent of senior citizens aged 60 or older, or 6.33 million people, have received at least one shot of the vaccine.
The agency added that 80.6 per cent of people aged 60-74 - out of the 9.08 million eligible - have signed up to receive AstraZeneca shots, and the turnout rate has reached 99.8 per cent.
Health authorities said on Tuesday that they will provide vaccination stickers from late June for people who are fully vaccinated to attach to their identity cards.
This, in addition to digital and paper records, is to make it easier for the elderly who are less tech savvy and may forget to bring papers out with them.
Teacher Bryan Lee, 60, is waiting for his turn and he doesn't mind getting any brand of vaccine.
"It will be good to choose the brand but each has its own strength and weakness and the side effects vary, so I think it doesn't really matter," he told ST. "I just want to get vaccinated right away, in order to prevent getting Covid."