South Korea Ends Indoor Mask Rule, But Seoul Residents Skeptical

South Korea on Friday announced an end to its indoor mask mandate, one of the country’s last major pandemic restrictions.
Health authorities said as of Jan. 30, face coverings will no longer be required indoors, except in hospitals, pharmacies, and on public transportation.
The move was made because a winter spike in COVID-19 cases is on the decline and the overall pandemic situation is under control, authorities said.
“Of course, there may be some increase in cases after changing the mandatory mask rule, but given the current situation in Korea we are not expecting a major spike,” said Jee Young-mee, the commissioner of the Korean Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
The announcement came exactly three years after South Korea reported its first COVID-19 case.
South Korea is the world’s last remaining developed country to lift its indoor mask rule and one of just a handful of nations where masks are still expected to be worn in nearly every public setting.
In Seoul, the densely populated metropolitan area where nearly half the country lives, many residents say they disagree with lifting the mask mandate.
“It’s too early,” said Kim Da-young, a 30-year-old nursing student, who said she fears a spike in COVID-19 cases. “I’m still nervous about taking off my mask, so I’ll keep wearing it.”
According to an opinion poll released earlier this month, 66% of South Koreans will continue to wear masks even after the mandate is lifted. Several polls suggest a large percentage of South Koreans do not ever anticipate a situation in which masks are not needed.
In Seoul, masks have become an expected part of daily life – and not just in crowded indoor settings. The vast majority of residents wear masks while walking outside. Many even keep the masks on when riding alone in an automobile, jogging on an empty path, or sitting on a park bench away from others.
Many residents say there’s little reason to take a mask off, if they have to put it back on to get on a bus or train. Others cite personal circumstances, such as living with older family members who are more susceptible to even mild diseases. South Korea has one of the world’s oldest populations.
Seoul resident Choi Seo-hyun said she is worried about spreading COVID-19 to her 2-month-old daughter.
“Even if I go out without the baby, I think I’ll still wear [the mask],” said Choi, who also cited fears about the seasonal flu.
“People have been wearing masks for a while, so I understand why they want to take them off. But wouldn’t it still be a little dangerous to take it off indoors?” she asked.
Widespread mask-wearing is seen as one of the main reasons South Korea was able to prevent the level of mass COVID-19 deaths seen in other countries, while at the same time avoiding mass lockdowns.
Other factors include the country’s quick and effective system of contact tracing, which has now ended, and an affordable national health care system.
South Korea has also quickly adjusted its COVID-19 policies as conditions changed. Almost all pandemic restrictions have been lifted, except for a seven-day isolation guideline for those who test positive at an official testing center.
The country has also imposed new rules for visitors from China, which has seen a massive spike in cases after abandoning its zero-COVID policy.

Source: Voice of America

WHO: No Evidence COVID-19 Vaccines Increase Risk of Strokes in Older People

The World Health Organization says there is no evidence that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines increase the risk of strokes in older people.
WHO officials say there is no basis to the recent concerns raised by the media and science communities about the safety of the mRNA booster shots. They say the concerns, which are related to one U.S. data system that monitors safety, presented misinformation about deaths related to COVID-19 infection.
Kate O’Brien, WHO director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, said other U.S. and national vaccine safety monitoring systems have not found further evidence that mRNA vaccines lead to strokes.
“At this point in time, the best evidence is that there is no true association between the booster doses of Pfizer in the older adults and strokes,” she said. “And, again, there is an ongoing, unending system to continuously monitor safety, not only for COVID vaccine and dose-by-dose, but also for all other vaccines.”
O’Brien said COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing hospitalization, severe disease, or death, but less effective at stopping people from getting infected and transmitting the disease.
She noted it is particularly important that people in high priority groups receive all their recommended doses. They include people over age 60, those who have underlying medical conditions or are immunocompromised, pregnant women and health workers.
“For the strains that we have circulating in the world now, the omicron strains, the first booster dose actually improves the performance of your primary series for protection against the severe end of the disease spectrum,” O’Brien said. “So, you actually need three doses to get that optimal protection from vaccines.”
O’Brien said there is no direct evidence of the performance of the monovalent or bivalent vaccines on the XBB.1.5 strain of COVID-19. Since there currently is no data on whether the newer bivalent vaccines are more effective than ancestral vaccines, she said the WHO recommends both for booster doses.

Source: Voice of America