SEOUL - South Korea's daily Covid-19 count surged to new highs as the country revises its virus response system to curb the spread of the highly infectious but milder Omicron variant.
A record-high of 8,571 cases, about half of them Omicron, were recorded on Tuesday (Jan 25). This is double the figure a week ago and the first time that the number has surpassed the 8,000 mark.
The nationwide tally stood at 749,979, with a death toll of 6,588.
Health officials warned that the daily figures could grow exponentially to 30,000 next month, given how fast Omicron is spreading within the community now.
How the next four weeks of virus control pans out will be key, they said.
From Wednesday, South Korea will tweak its virus response system to focus on early detection and treatment of high-risk groups so as to stop their symptoms from becoming too severe.
Free polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing at public health centres, which was previously offered to everyone, will now be prioritised for more vulnerable groups. They include people aged above 60, those who had close contact with Covid-19 patients, and those who hold a doctor's note for testing.
Those who are not considered a priority will have to take the self-administered antigen rapid test (ART). Free test kits will be available at public health centres.
The new system will be imposed first in four regions where Omicron is fast spreading. They include the whole of South Jeolla province and three cities in Gyeonggi province - Gwangju, Pyeongtaek and Anseong.
In Gwangju, for instance, nearly 80 per cent of all new infections last week were of the Omicron variant.
The system will be expanded to the whole country either later this week or early February, health officials said.
The government also decided to cut the isolation period for Covid-19 patients from 10 to seven days, so as to ease the burden of managing massive quarantine numbers.
Fully vaccinated people who have come into close contact with Covid-19 patients will no longer be required to quarantine. Instead, they can just monitor themselves and report to the health authorities via a mobile phone app.
The Omicron wave comes at a time when South Koreans are set to celebrate one of their biggest festivals - Seollal, or Lunar New Year.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum has already urged people not to travel or visit their home towns during the five-day long weekend, from Jan 29 to Feb 2.
A current ban on gatherings of more than six people will still apply, as well as a 9pm curfew on businesses such as restaurants and cafes.
Citing a 38 per cent jump in Covid-19 cases after the Chuseok holidays last September, Mr Kim warned on Monday that a spike in private gatherings and travels will be "no different from pouring fuel on a burning fire".
He also urged people to wear better-quality face masks that block droplets.
President Moon Jae-in ordered health officials to make a swift transition to the new measures to curb Omicron.
"Speed is more important than anything else, as the number of confirmed cases could surge in a short period of time," he said.