Seoul, South Korea — South Korea will extend restaurant meal hours but keep a six-person limit on private social gatherings as it deals with a massive coronavirus wave driven by the highly contagious Omicron mutation.
The 109,831 new cases reported Friday are another record and represent a roughly 25-fold increase from mid-January, when omicron became the country’s dominant strain. More than 516,000 infections in the past seven days alone bring the number of cases in South Korea to more than 1.75 million.
In the densely populated capital, Seoul, long lines formed around public health offices and testing stations, where health workers in hazsuits distributed rapid antigen test kits and collected throat and nasal samples from the elderly and other high-risk groups.
There are also concerns that campaigning for the March 9 presidential election could intensify transmission. Thousands of supporters were summoned by the ruling party candidate Lee Jae-Myung in the southwestern city of Suncheon, where they clapped, shouted and chanted his name. Lee’s conservative rival Yin Shuyang also drew a large crowd at a rally in the southeastern city of Sangzhou.
So far, Omicron seems less likely to cause serious illness or death than the Delta variant that hit the country hard in December and January. But cases are rising faster and appear to be putting the country on the verge of a hospital explosion.
Prime Minister Kim Bok-kim, the no. 2 official in Seoul behind President Moon Jae-in, acknowledged people’s frustration with the extended virus restrictions and the impact on businesses in the service sector, but said officials were unable to significantly ease social distancing when hospitalizations and deaths began to climb.
Officials did extend a curfew for restaurants and other businesses from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., but private social gatherings of seven or more people will remain banned until at least March 13.
People will continue to be required to show their vaccination status via a smartphone app or file to enter potentially crowded Spaces such as restaurants, coffee shops, gyms and karaoke establishments.
“Experts expect [the Omicron outbreak] to peak sometime in late February to March,” Kim said at a conference on antivirus strategy. “When we can confirm the point at which [the epidemic] has peaked and is declining, we will, like other countries, begin to meaningfully relax social distancing measures so people can resume their precious normal lives.”
About 30% of intensive care units designated for Novel Coronavirus treatment are currently occupied, the Ministry said. The health ministry said 385 patients with the virus were in serious or critical condition, up from 100 more than a week ago but still down from about 1,000 during the delta outbreak in late December.
Although Omicron is more likely to infect those who have been previously vaccinated or infected with novel coronavirus, experts say vaccination and booster shots still offer strong protection against severe illness and death.
More than 86 percent of South Koreans have been fully vaccinated and 58 percent have received booster shots. Health officials began offering the fourth vaccination in nursing homes and other long-term care Settings.