South Korea COVID-19 cases skyrocket under Omicron wave; PM urges calm

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SEOUL, Feb. 23 (UPI) — South Korea saw its daily tally of COVID-19 cases spike to more than 170,000 on Wednesday, shattering previous highs and prompting Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum to call for calm as the Omicron variant roars through the population.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, also known as the KDCA, reported 171,452 new infections on Wednesday, toppling the previous record of 104,814 from Sunday.

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Confirmed cases have been soaring since the Omicron variant became the dominant strain in South Korea last month, roughly doubling on a weekly basis since late January. Officials have estimated that the current wave could reach 270,000 daily cases at its peak by early March.

However, Kim said Wednesday that the rising counts are no cause for alarm due to the relative mildness of the Omicron variant.

“Although awareness and implementation of antivirus measures should not be eased, there is absolutely no reason to fear or panic just because of the number of confirmed cases,” the prime minister said at a government COVID-19 response meeting Wednesday.

Kim pointed to research released by the KDCA on Monday that found the rates of both severe cases and deaths caused by Omicron to be just a quarter that of the Delta variant. According to a study of more than 67,000 patients since December, the fatality rate of Omicron is 0.18%, compared to Delta’s 0.7%.

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Omicron’s death rate is twice as high as the seasonal flu, Kim said, but it drops to equal or even lower with booster doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

South Korea’s vaccination rates are among the world’s highest, with more than 86% fully vaccinated and almost 60% receiving a booster shot. Children below 12 years of age have not yet been eligible for vaccination, but on Wednesday, the country’s food and drug ministry approved the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5-11.

South Korea has shifted gears in its COVID-19 strategy to face the far more contagious Omicron, moving away from its highly centralized “3T” model — test, trace and treat — to a home-care system that looks to preserve hospital bed capacity and limit disruptions to the economy.

Authorities loosened some social distancing regulations last week, extending business hours for restaurants and bars from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. and removing the requirement for contract-tracing check-ins at most establishments. Personal gatherings are still limited to six people under the latest guidelines, which remain in effect until March 13.

“The previous methods of tracing the source of infection cannot keep up with Omicron,” Kim said. “We need to focus our medical capabilities on high-risk groups to minimize serious illness and death.”

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Severe cases climbed Wednesday to 512, up from around 200 last week, and the country added 99 deaths to bring the overall toll to 7,607.

Kim said that the situation was being managed “stably” and predicted that the Omicron variant would be “the last hurdle in the recovery of daily life.”