South Korea struggles with Omicron surge as daily Covid-19 cases cross 90,000 mark

This recent surge has brought total infections in the country since the pandemic began to 1,552,851. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - South Korea's daily Covid-19 cases surged beyond the 90,000 mark on Wednesday (Feb 16), as the authorities struggled to contain the spread of the highly infectious but less severe Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Yet, the authorities are also considering easing restrictions in the country.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who said on Wednesday that he was "sorry in many ways to people who have been cooperating with us", assured the people that "our medical response system has had no problems so far".

The government, he said, has secured enough hospital beds early for seriously ill patients and expanded home care treatment for those with mild symptoms.

South Korea on Wednesday reported 90,443 new infections - a big jump from 57,164 in the previous day. This brought the total tally of infections in the country to 1,552,851, including 313 who are critically ill. The death toll was 7,202, up by 39 from Tuesday.

Despite soaring infections and warnings by experts that the daily number could reach as high as 360,000 in early March, the authorities are looking at relaxing social distancing curbs in line with the trend elsewhere in the world.

Restrictions such as a gathering ban of more than six people and a 9pm curfew on high-risk businesses including restaurants, cafes and gyms have been in place in South Korea for over two months.

Mr Kim said a decision would be made on Friday after considering the impact of the Omicron wave and "damage to people's livelihoods" as a result of the curbs. Owners of small businesses such as restaurants have borne the brunt of the measures, having been forced to shorten operating hours.

The Prime Minister had earlier hinted that the government might ease restrictions in a way that could help business owners without compromising public safety.

He also appealed against panic buying of self-administered antigen rapid test (ART) kits, which are in short supply.

The government has now imposed restrictions on the sale of such kits. A ban on online sales went into effect earlier this week and one person is allowed to buy only up to five kits each time from pharmacies and convenience stores.

From next week, the government will provide free ART kits to kindergartens, schools and eldercare facilities. Some 60.5 million kits will be issued for 6.92 million students and school staff.

The Education Ministry has urged students to self-test twice a week before and after school reopens in early March for the new academic year.

In the face of soaring infections, the health authorities have also scrapped contact tracing in favour of self-reporting and shifted the focus to treating high-risk patients, such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions.

Authorities are considering easing restrictions in the country despite a surge. PHOTO: AFP

Those with mild symptoms are recovering at home, with the option to call a medical hotline to talk to a nurse or doctor. They can also visit a nearby medical facility if they require face-to-face consultation.

More than 230,000 patients are recovering at home, including singer V of K-pop group BTS, who tested positive on Tuesday, and Second Vice-Minister of Health and Welfare Ryu Geun-hyuk, who tested positive last Friday.

Mr Ryu, who is in his late 50s, has been sharing his Covid-19 journey in a diary posted on social media.

During a radio interview on Wednesday, he said he wanted to share the experience of home treatment and "to see if it actually works and whether there are any problems".

"I can imagine the public will have a lot of anxiety (about home recovery) and I thought I could alleviate the anxiety by doing this (diary)," he said.

Responding to criticism about home treatment turning into "home neglect", Mr Ryu said it was understandable that patients would be anxious and confused if they did not receive proper instructions on what to do. There was also a chance that some calls to the medical hotline may go unanswered due to the sheer volume of calls, he added.

He acknowledged budding problems, but said the health ministry was trying to sort out the issues.

"For those who don't know what to do (during home recovery), it's important to guide them and provide them details as soon as possible," he said.

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