SEOUL (REUTERS, AFP) - South Korea reported its first five cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant on Wednesday (Dec 1), officials said, as daily coronavirus infections rose above 5,000 for the first time, stoking concern over a sharp rise in patients with severe symptoms.
A fully vaccinated couple tested positive for the variant after arriving last week from Nigeria, followed by two of their family members and a friend, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
As South Korea reported its first Omicron infections, it also announced a tightening of travel restrictions, including a suspension of direct flights to Ethiopia for two weeks.
It said all travellers entering the country will be tested for the new variant.
And from Friday for two weeks, all arrivals - South Koreans and foreigners - will have to quarantine for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status, KDCA said.
Earlier, exemptions were available in a number of cases, such as fully vaccinated South Korean nationals.
The government had already stopped issuing visas and arrivals of non-nationals from eight African countries, and added Nigeria to that list on Wednesday.
South Korea has an established Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) with Singapore. A check with KDCA showed that no decision has been made yet about whether VTL travellers will be subject to the mandatory quarantine.
South Korea reported another record of daily coronavirus cases at 5,266, KDCA said on Thursday.
The surge began in early November after the country relaxed restrictions. The new variant prompted the government to halt plans on Monday for a further easing.
South Korea also said on Wednesday that a UN peacekeeping conference expected to draw more than 700 people to Seoul next week would now be held online.
The country has fully inoculated nearly 92 per cent of adults and is now focused on vaccinating children and a booster programme, but experts warned that cases would continue to rise until unvaccinated people obtained immunity through infection.
"The authorities could bring down the number of cases by reintroducing some of the social distancing measures," said Professor Jung Jae-hun, a preventive medicine expert at Gachon University.
South Korea said hospitals were treating 723 patients with severe Covid-19, a record number.
Nearly 90 per cent of intensive care unit beds in the greater Seoul area are occupied, with 842 patients waiting for admission.
The Korean Medical Association urged the government to set up treatment facilities and allow antibody treatment for high-risk patients before they develop severe symptoms.
The authorities will secure at least an additional 1,300 hospital beds by mid-December, Interior and Safety Minister Jeon Hae-cheol told a Covid-19 response meeting.
More than 84 per cent of the severely ill patients were aged 60 and above. Experts had pointed to waning antibody levels from the vaccines and urged the elderly to get booster shots.
Tuesday's new cases bring South Korea's total to 452,350, with 3,658 deaths. Despite the rising hospitalisation rate, the mortality rate remains relatively low at 0.81 per cent, KDCA data shows.