S. Korea reports record high daily COVID-19 infections amid rapid omicron spread

SEOUL-- South Korea's daily coronavirus cases hit a record high of 8,571 on Tuesday, driven by the fast spread of the new dominant omicron variant, as the country is set to put in force revised virus curbs to rein in the highly transmissible variant.

Tuesday's cases, including 8,356 local infections, took the total caseload to 749,979, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

It marks the first time the daily caseload has surpassed the 8,000 mark since the country reported the first COVID-19 infection on Jan. 20, 2020. The previous all-time high was 7,848 on Dec. 15 last year.

South Korea has seen the daily counts skyrocket over the past week, from 3,857 on Jan. 17 to 7,513 reported Monday.

The death toll from COVID-19 came to 6,588, up 23 from Monday. The fatality rate stood at 0.88 percent.

The number of critically ill COVID-19 patients came to 392, down 26 from the previous day.

As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, the country had reported 7,439 new COVID-19 cases, sharply up 1,570 from the same time the previous day, according to health authorities and city governments. Daily cases are counted until midnight and announced the following morning.

Health officials say the daily infections could top 30,000 a day next month, given the current pace that the omicron variant is spreading.

"How we overcome this as moderately and smoothly as possible over the next four weeks will be the key," Sohn Young-rae, a senior health official, said on a radio program.

On the possibility of herd immunity once the omicron outbreak peaks, Sohn suggested that South Korea could be such a case, like the United States and Britain, if it manages to weather the current wave of the pandemic.

To stem the omicron spread, the public health agency will implement a new virus response system Wednesday that will focus on early detection and treatment for high-risk groups, such as elderly people and those with underlying illnesses.

People in low-risk groups will take rapid antigen tests, and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests will be carried out on those considered more vulnerable.

The quarantine and at-home treatment period for vaccinated COVID-19 patients will be cut down to seven days from the current 10. A vaccinated person who comes into close contact with a COVID-19 patient won't have to quarantine but will need to take a PCR test about a week after the initial contact.

The KDCA will first adopt the measures in parts of the country that have reported higher omicron cases before applying them nationwide as early as later this month.

The government made it official on Monday that the omicron variant has become the new dominant COVID-19 virus strain in South Korea, 52 days after the first such case was reported.

Given the omicron's transmission ability, medical experts warn that infection cases could grow exponentially to as many as 20,000 a day by early February and even 100,000 in the coming days.

The government has asked people to minimize visits to hometowns during the Lunar New Year holiday that runs from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 to help contain the omicron variant.

Of the locally transmitted cases Tuesday, Seoul reported 1,674 new COVID-19 cases, the surrounding Gyeonggi Province added 2,869 and the western port city of Incheon reported 653.

The number of imported cases was tallied at 215, bringing the total to 23,965.

As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, 25.72 million people, or 50.1 percent of the country's 52 million population, had received booster shots, the KDCA said. The number of fully vaccinated people came to 43.84 million people, accounting for 85.4 percent.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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