South Korea reports record deaths amid omicron surge

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea experienced its deadliest day of the pandemic on Tuesday, with 293 deaths reported in the past 24 hours, as the country grapples with a record rise in coronavirus infections. coronavirus caused by the rapidly evolving omicron variant.

The 1,196 patients infected with the virus in serious or critical conditions was also a new record. Health officials said the country’s medical response remained stable after efforts to increase resources, with more than 30% of intensive care units designated for COVID-19 treatment still available. But the pressure on the hospital system is expected to increase in the coming weeks, given the delays between infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

“We expect the number of (serious or critical cases) to reach around 2,000. We are preparing our medical response for that,” Park Hyang, a senior health ministry official, told a briefing.

South Korea has reported a daily average of around 337,000 new cases over the past seven days, including 362,283 on Tuesday, which is a more than 80-fold increase from levels seen in mid-January, when the omicron has become the dominant strain. The number of cases in the country now exceeds 7.2 million, including 6.4 million since February.

Park said that due to high vaccination rates, the country has so far weathered the omicron push with death levels lower than those seen in the United States and Europe, which have been hit by the variant earlier. More than 62% of South Koreans have received reminders.

The country has so far had 17.6 deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 people, compared to 285.5 deaths in the United States and 237.5 in Britain, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. diseases.

The omicron variant has forced South Korea to abandon a strict COVID-19 response based on mass lab testing, aggressive contact tracing and quarantines to focus limited medical resources on priority groups, including people. 60 years and older and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

The rise of omicron and its growing economic record will pose an immediate major challenge to conservative South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who takes office in May after narrowly winning elections last week.

Yoon slammed the COVID-19 response under current liberal President Moon Jae-in, which was seen as a relative success before a devastating spread from the delta in winter, accusing officials of maintaining an unsustainable approach that has weighed on medical workers and livelihoods. before being broken by omicron.

Yoon has promised relaxed social distancing rules and greater financial support for small businesses, but has yet to release clear plans to deal with expected increases in hospitalizations and deaths.

Health officials recently significantly eased quarantine restrictions and border controls and stopped requiring adults to show proof of vaccination or negative tests when entering potentially crowded spaces like restaurants so that more public and health personnel can respond to the rapid expansion of home-based treatment. The country has also reshaped its testing regime to focus on rapid antigen tests, despite concerns over their accuracy, to save lab tests mainly for high-risk groups.

Authorities may take new steps to ease social distancing soon after extending curfews on restaurants, bars, cinemas and other businesses earlier this month to ease the pandemic’s blow to businesses of the service sector.

More than 1.6 million virus carriers with mild or moderate symptoms have been advised to self-isolate to save hospital space, the KDCA said.

The country will also begin a rollout of vaccines for children aged 5 to 11 later this month.

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