Covid-19: South Korea eases distancing despite record virus deaths
South Korean officials announced an easing of social distancing restrictions even as the country experienced its deadliest day of the pandemic on Friday, reflecting reduced political capacity to deal with a rapidly developing omicron surge in the face of a growing economic toll and a presidential election next week.
Interior and Security Minister Jeon Hae-cheol said the curfew on restaurants, bars, cinemas and other indoor businesses will be extended by one hour from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. starting Saturday. He cited people’s fatigue and frustration over the prolonged restrictions and damage to livelihoods.
Officials have maintained a six-person limit for private social gatherings, acknowledging the uncertainties posed by an accelerated spread of omicron that has put the country on the brink of a surge in hospitals.
Jeon’s announcement at a government meeting on the national response to COVID-19 came shortly before Korea’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 186 deaths in the past 24 hours, breaking the previous single-day record of 128 set the day before.
The 266,853 coronavirus infections diagnosed in the past 24 hours were also a single-day record and represented a 60-fold increase from daily levels in mid-January, when omicron emerged as the dominant strain. The cumulative national workload is around 3.96 million after adding more than 3.11 million in February alone.
Omicron appears less likely to cause serious illness or death compared to the delta variant that hit the country hard in December and January, but hospitalizations have increased amid the larger outbreak. The strain on the hospital system is likely to worsen in the coming weeks, given the delays between infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
While nearly 800 patients infected with the virus were in serious or critical conditions, Deputy Health Minister Lee Ki-il said the country was not in immediate danger of running out of hospital beds, with nearly half of the 2,700 intensive care units designated for COVID-19 treatment. always available.
Lee acknowledged that health experts advising the government had opposed the easing of virus restrictions, but insisted the move was inevitable given the shock to businesses in the service sector. He did not give a specific answer when asked if the government was easing its response to the pandemic ahead of Wednesday’s presidential election.
The decision on social distancing measures was taken considering both the epidemiological situation and livelihoods, Lee said during a briefing. I want to emphasize that the decision was made after real and careful deliberation.
The decision to extend indoor dining hours came after authorities removed another key preventative measure last week that required adults to show proof of vaccination or negative tests to enter potentially crowded spaces like restaurants, cafes and gyms.
The omicron push has forced the country to reshape its pandemic response in a way that effectively tolerates the spread of the virus among the general population while focusing medical resources to protect priority groups. But the bend but not break approach is causing growing concern as the country continues to report some of the highest daily infection numbers in the world.
More than 925,000 virus patients with mild or moderate symptoms have been asked to self-isolate at home to save space in the hospital. The country has also reshaped its testing policy around rapid antigen test kits, despite concerns about their accuracy and propensity for false negative results, to reserve lab tests mainly for priority groups.
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