South Korea Toughens Measures as Virus Spreads Among Teens


ImageStudents taking the college entrance exam at a high school on Jeju Island, South Korea, in December.
Credit…Pool photo by Yonhap

South Korea said on Thursday that it would hospitalize even asymptomatic high school seniors with Covid if they are taking the country’s high-stakes college entrance exam later this month, as the drive to vaccinate younger people lags and teenagers account for nearly a quarter of all Covid patients.

The decision comes as South Korea experiences rising caseloads again. The annual nine-hour exam is seen as critical in determining students’ futures, and many of those taking the test have prepared for it since kindergarten.

But because the test must be taken under supervision, the government has decided that those taking the Nov. 18 exam who test positive for the virus will have do so from a hospital or quarantine facility, even if they show no symptoms.

“We are preparing for the situation in which people may take the social-distancing rules less seriously as the country eases restrictions,” the Education Ministry said in a statement on Thursday, two weeks before half a million students will hunker down for the exams.

As South Korea begins its phased easing of Covid restrictions, the risk of infections will “only increase,” particularly among younger people, who have lower vaccination rates, Son Young-rae, a Health Ministry spokesman, said on Wednesday.

Only about 0.2 percent of people ages 17 and under, including those not yet eligible for shots, were fully vaccinated as of last week, according to data released by the Health Ministry on Oct. 27. South Korea began vaccinating those ages 16 to 17 on Oct. 18 and those ages 12 to 15 on Nov. 1.

Since easing restrictions on Monday, the country has recorded more than 2,000 cases a day on average in the past week, an increase that officials are watching closely, Mr. Son said. More than 24 percent of Covid patients are teenagers, the interior and safety minister, Jeon Hae-cheol, said on Wednesday.

The easing of restrictions, including the lifting of all limits on the operating hours of restaurants and bars, was a relief for many small-business owners, but it has also stirred fears about the possibility of outbreaks larger than the country has yet seen.

“It feels like watching an approaching tsunami from a small boat,” said Dr. Joong-sik Eom, professor of infectious diseases who has treated Covid patients at Gachon University Gil Hospital in Incheon, in a Facebook post on Monday.

As part of the phased reopening plan, the Education Ministry said that it would fully reopen elementary, middle and high schools nationwide on Nov. 22. But it said that it would make an exemption for high schools ahead of the college entrance exams, switching all instruction to remote learning starting on Nov. 11, a week before the exams, until the exams are over.

For test takers with Covid, the ministry said that it had reserved 244 hospital beds. It said that it would also closely monitor cases and adherence to Covid rules at 320 cram schools nationwide.

Credit…Caleb Jones/Associated Press

Signaling that Hawaii is eager to jump-start its battered tourism and hospitality industries, Gov. David Y. Ige said that his state would ease Covid restrictions this month and welcome international travelers again, under new federal guidelines that go into effect on Nov. 8.

The governor’s decision represented a turnaround for a state that only two months ago was advising travelers not to visit as it dealt with the worst surge of coronavirus cases it had seen, a wave of illness driven by the highly contagious Delta variant that overwhelmed hospitals and halted Hawaii’s economic recovery.

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Hawaii had endured months of lockdown, imposing strict, 14-day quarantine protocols and suffering the economic consequences to its tourism economy.

Now, with low rates of hospitalizations and new cases, the islands are again ready for business, officials say. On Sept. 2, the state’s seven-day daily average of new cases was 910. As of Tuesday, it had dropped to 116, according to a New York Times database.

On Tuesday, the governor signed an executive order that will lift capacity limits later this month on bars, restaurants and gyms in counties that require patrons to present proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test to enter.

At a news conference, Mr. Ige said the state’s vaccination campaign, which has inoculated about 60 percent of the eligible population, had driven new cases and hospitalizations down to a level making it possible to ease restrictions.

“The vaccination is the most widespread and important mitigation measure during this pandemic that each of us can take personal action to implement,” the governor said in a news conference.

The executive order from the governor comes two weeks after he announced that fully vaccinated domestic tourists would be welcome to visit the islands again starting Nov. 1.

Counties that don’t require proof of vaccinations or a negative Covid test will still have to limit capacity in bars, restaurants and gyms to 50 percent, according to the order.

The order also says that patrons must maintain six feet of distance and wear masks while inside restaurants and bars, except while eating or drinking — a measure that the mayor of Honolulu, Rick Blangiardi, questioned.

Mr. Blangiardi said in a statement that keeping the social-distancing requirement would prevent some businesses from operating at full capacity and “does not move the needle forward for many of the impacted restaurants and bars.”

Still, the governor’s order was evidence that the state was making progress on the pandemic, some officials said.

“We’re slowly starting to come out of it, which is good,” Brandon J.C. Elefante, a Honolulu City Council member, said in an interview on Wednesday. “I think that’s an important step as we kind of ease up on some of the restrictions, while still keeping a close watch on our positivity rate,” he said.

Credit…Paolo Giovannini/EPA, via Shutterstock

The northeastern Italian port city of Trieste, once a cosmopolitan maritime hub of the Austro-Hungarian empire, became an epicenter of protest last month as thousands of vaccine skeptics marched alongside dock workers to protest the government’s tough new plan to control the coronavirus.

Two weeks later, Trieste has emerged as a center of something else: a Covid outbreak linked directly to those protests that threatens to burden intensive care units, usher in new social-distancing restrictions and mar the reputation of a city best known as a linguistic and cultural borderland with vast ambitions for its revitalized port.

“The situation in Trieste is particularly worrisome,” said Dr. Fabio Barbone, the epidemiologist leading the effort against the spread of Covid in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, where Trieste is the capital.

The region’s president, Massimiliano Fedriga, was more blunt, saying, “It is the moment to say with clarity: Enough idiocy.”

The nationwide plan Italy adopted threatens workers with unpaid leave and fines if they fail to obtain a health certificate, known as a Green Pass. Italians are required to provide proof of vaccination, a negative rapid swab test or proof of a recent recovery from Covid-19 to go to the workplace.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italy has mostly succeeded in containing Covid cases after having been devastated early in the pandemic, a fact that drew praise at the Group of 20 summit in Rome at the weekend.

But the Trieste outbreak shows how an unvaccinated minority — whether motivated by concerns about freedom, the right to work or unfounded conspiracy theories — can still threaten the greater public health and how difficult it can be to bring vaccine resisters into the fold.

Credit…Maynor Valenzuela/Reuters

Officials from the World Health Organization on Wednesday urged countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to limit administering booster shots and to hold off on vaccinating children, allocating scant doses to the most vulnerable.

“In some countries, we have seen vaccine doses reaching all levels of the population before a high percentage of vulnerable” residents has been fully immunized, Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, a division of the W.H.O., said at a news conference.

Just 46 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated so far, with supplies being slow to reach many countries, the organization said. Inequities have plagued the region, too. While Chile and Uruguay have vaccinated more than 75 percent of their populations, countries like Haiti and Nicaragua have administered two shots to less than 20 percent of people.

Against this backdrop, vaccine supplies across the region must be distributed carefully and strategically, with the aim of reducing mortality and transmission of the virus among the adult population, Dr. Barbosa said.

“P.A.H.O. urges countries to prioritize the elderly, frontline workers and people with pre-existing conditions — to protect them, but also to prevent the health system from becoming overburdened with severe cases,” he said.

Offering vaccines to children and booster shots to others before high-risk groups are fully vaccinated — as the Dominican Republic has done — “may be defusing some of the efforts” to control the virus in the region, Dr. Barbosa added.

Still, echoing a recent W.H.O. recommendation, he stressed that older and immunocompromised people who received the Chinese-made vaccines Sinopharm or Sinovac Biotech would need a third shot to ensure that they were fully protected against Covid-19.

“Their vaccination cannot be considered complete until they have received their third shot,” said Dr. Barbosa, noting that there is no evidence that healthy adults who have received two doses need another.

This could affect millions of people in Latin America and the Caribbean, where many countries — including Chile and Brazil — have relied heavily on the more readily available Chinese-made shots to speed up vaccination.

Vaccine supplies distributed through the United Nations-backed Covax program are picking up pace, with Latin America and the Caribbean receiving around 64.3 million doses so far. Some 2.6 million doses have reached Venezuela, where the health system is especially fragile, and more supplies are expected in November.

New Covid-19 cases across Latin America and the Caribbean have been declining in recent weeks, offering an encouraging signal for the region, Dr. Barbosa noted. But he urged countries to stay vigilant and maintain public health measures, warning that the pandemic is not over.

“The declining case indices show that our approach is working,” he said. “And it is critical for all of us to stay the course until everyone is vaccinated and protected from the virus.”

Officials also warned about the possibility of a spike in infections with the onset of winter and the holiday season. As travel restrictions are lifted in many countries, tourism could pose an additional risk, said Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri, the Covid-19 incident manager at P.A.H.O.

“Social distancing and avoiding closed environments, together with mask wearing, are the most important tools for limiting the transmission,” Dr. Aldighieri said. “The public really has to incorporate these basic measures into their lifestyle, including beach, seaside and vacation activities.”

Credit…Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Almost 97 percent of active-duty members of the Air Force — the first branch of the U.S. military to reach its deadline for coronavirus vaccinations — have received at least one dose of vaccine, military officials said Wednesday. That percentage is in line with those for active-duty military members in most branches of service whose deadlines have not yet arrived.

Though the 10,636 Air Force members who remain unvaccinated are only a small sliver of the branch’s 326,855 active-duty troops, they still represent a large number of people to be facing possible expulsion for failing to comply with the vaccine mandate the Pentagon issued in August.

Many of them have requests pending for an exemption of some kind.

Some 4,933 troops have sought a religious exemption, but so far, not a single member of the military has been granted one. A smaller number have been given an administrative exemption — for example, because they are planning to leave the military soon — and others have received medical exemptions, some of which could be reversed if their medical condition changed. The Air Force said it would take 30 days to review all pending exemption requests.

For the military as a whole, about 97 percent of active-duty forces have had at least one dose of vaccine, and nearly 88 percent are fully vaccinated. The Navy leads the charge, with nearly 99 percent having at least one dose. When the National Guard and Reserves are included as well, though, they drag down the figures considerably, with only 69 percent of all forces fully vaccinated. In the Marines, for example, 86 percent of active-duty troops are fully vaccinated, but only 52 percent of Reserve troops are.

The vaccination deadline for the Navy and Marines arrives later this month. The Army, the largest service branch, has set a date in mid-December. Members of the Guard and Reserves in all branches will also be given more time. Civilian Pentagon employees are required to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22.

Refusing the vaccine without an exemption is grounds for expulsion from the military, but Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has given commanders wide latitude to decide how to coax, cajole and ultimately punish those who won’t get shots.

“Each case is going to be treated specifically and individually, as it ought to be,” John Kirby, a spokesman for Mr. Austin, said this week. “Can we promise you that there will be absolute uniformity across the board? No.”

Vaccine reluctance in the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs mirrors that in civilian society, where vaccination rates are generally lower among people who do not face a strict vaccine mandate.