SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea will begin giving out fourth doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of February and supply millions of additional home test kits to ease shortages amid a surge in Omicron infections, authorities confirmed on Monday (Feb 14).
The surge has pushed daily cases to records, but widespread vaccination, with first booster shots received by more than 57 per cent of the population of 52 million, has helped limit deaths and serious infections.
High-risk groups will be the first to get the fourth dose, in effect a second booster shot, Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol told a Covid-19 response meeting.
"We're planning to provide fourth shots to those who live in nursing homes and care facilities and others with declined immunisation, in the light of a recent increase of infections among people aged 60 or older," he said, according to a transcript.
At least 44.22 million people, or 86.2 per cent of the population, are considered fully vaccinated. Sunday's 54,619 new cases took the tally of infections to 1,405,246, said the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The death toll rose by 21 to 7,102.
Recipients of the fourth shot will include some 500,000 people aged 18 or older who live or work at care centres, and 1.3 million others who immunocompromised, KDCA director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a separate briefing.
People outside these groups would not yet be advised to receive additional vaccination.
As the Omicron variant of coronavirus became dominant last month, the government began to restrict free polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests to those in high risk groups.
Others must first take rapid antigen tests using kits sold at stores, or offered free by public health centres.
On Sunday, the authorities imposed a three-week rationing period on test kits for home use, by limiting online sales as well as pharmacy purchases to five to a person at a single location.
However, the total number available to buy will not be curbed, authorities said, as they believe stocks to be adequate in the absence of major hoarding.
Mr Kwon said about 30 million additional self-test kits will be supplied nationwide this month to dispel concerns about shortages.
The government has said it plans to provide 190 million self-test kits for March, more than twice the supply in February.
The National Assembly passed a bill on Monday to allow Covid-19 patients to cast their ballot in the March 9 presidential election.
The amendment to the Public Official Election Act came as officials explore how to prevent potential Covid-related disruptions while ensuring everyone’s right to vote.
The existing rules effectively ban people diagnosed with a contagious disease after the March 4-5 early voting period due to mandatory isolation policy.