South Korea maintains crowd limits as omicron increases 25x

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea will extend restaurant dine-in hours but maintain a six-person limit for private social gatherings as it battles a massive wave of coronavirus caused by the highly infectious variant of the omicron.

The 109,831 new cases reported on Friday was another record high and about a 25-fold increase from levels seen in mid-January, when omicron became the nation’s dominant strain. The more than 516,000 infections recorded in the past seven days alone have brought the number of cases in South Korea to more than 1.75 million.

Long queues snaked around public health offices and testing stations in the densely populated capital of Seoul, where health workers in hazmat suits handed out rapid antigen test kits and took blood samples. throat and nose in the elderly and other high-risk groups.

There are also fears that campaigning for the March 9 presidential election could worsen transmissions. Thousands of supporters held a rally in the southwestern city of Suncheon for ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung, where they cheered, shouted and chanted his name. Lee’s conservative opponent Yoon Suk Yeol also drew huge crowds at a rally in the southeastern city of Sangju.

So far, Omicron seemed less likely to cause serious illness or death than the delta variant, which hit the country hard in December and January. But cases are rising much faster and appear to be putting the country on the brink of a possible hospital surge.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, Seoul’s second in charge behind President Moon Jae-in, acknowledged people’s frustration with the prolonged virus restrictions and the shock suffered by service-sector businesses, but said that officials could not afford to drastically reduce social distancing in the event of hospitalizations and deaths. start to climb.

Authorities have extended the curfew for restaurants and other businesses from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., but private social gatherings of seven or more people will continue to be banned until at least March 13.

People will continue to be required to show their vaccination status through smartphone apps or documents to enter potentially crowded spaces like restaurants, cafes, gyms and karaoke rooms.

“Experts expect (the omicron outbreak) to peak between late February and March,” Kim said during an anti-virus strategy meeting. “When we reach a point where we can confirm that (the epidemic) has peaked and was in decline, we will begin to significantly relax social distancing measures like other nations so people can resume their precious normal life.”

The Ministry of Health said about 30% of intensive care units designated for the treatment of COVID-19 are currently occupied. The ministry said 385 patients with the virus were in serious or critical condition, up 100 from a week earlier but still below levels of around 1,000 seen in late December during an outbreak in the delta.

Although omicron more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or have had COVID-19 in the past, experts say vaccination and booster shots still offer strong protection against serious illness and death.

More than 86% of South Koreans have been fully vaccinated and 58% have received boosters. Health officials have begun offering fourth vaccination shots in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for this research.

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