Mask mandate may be loosened in January
Korea may lift the indoor mask mandate, one of its last Covid restrictions, as early as January.
Still, masks are likely to be required in hospitals and on public transport.
Commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Peck Kyong-ran announced Wednesday that the government will ease the indoor mask-wearing rule early next year. The only other major Covid restriction still in force is the mandatory seven-day quarantine for confirmed patients.
“We are considering adjusting the administrative order and fine provisions of the mask mandate, and gradually shifting the mandate to be a recommendation and voluntary,” Peck said during a press briefing on Wednesday.
“The implementation of the changed rule is expected to be between January and March at the latest if standards are met [such as the virus situation],” Peck said.
The KDCA chief added, “Even if masks are only recommended, they may still be required in facilities for high-risk groups,” such as people in nursing homes and hospitals.
“Voluntary wearing of masks is necessary for each individual’s own health,” Peck said.
Some local governments including the city of Daejeon and the province of Chungcheong are threatening to lift the requirement on their own. They’ve questioned why Korea still insists on masks when the rest of the world has moved on.
Jung Ki-suck, head of an advisory committee to the government on the pandemic, said in a MBC radio interview on Tuesday that he believes “late January is not impossible” for the mask mandate to be lifted.
Regarding conditions for lifting the rule, Jung had suggested bivalent booster vaccination rates of 50 percent or more of the public aged over 59, and 60 percent or more among residents and employees of nursing home or other high-risk facilities.
Health authorities said they will review the mask mandate considering the coronavirus has become milder and there is now group immunity from vaccinations and natural infections.
“We haven’t been able to decide when to lift the mask mandate as the current [seventh] wave hasn’t turned into a decline,” Peck said.
Peck pointed out that the effectiveness of masks in preventing transmission of the disease is “indisputably clear,” referring to a study from the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
The study compared the incidence of Covid-19 depending on face mask use in 72 school districts (294,084 students and 46,530 faculty members) in Massachusetts for 15 weeks from February to June. Districts that had mask requirements saw 66.1 virus-positive cases per 1,000 people, while districts that lifted the requirements had 134.4 cases per 1,000.
The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters announced earlier Wednesday morning that it will decide on the adjustment of the indoor mask mandate by the end of this month.
“At the next headquarters meeting on Friday, we will discuss the direction of the rule and hold an open discussion and expert advisory meeting on Dec. 15,” said Interior Minister Lee Sang-min Wednesday.
“As this winter is expected to be the last hurdle of the resurgence of Covid-19, it is more important than ever to maintain a unified Covid-19 policy nationwide,” emphasized Lee.
BY SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]