South Korea’s COVID-19 cases hit all-time high; gov’t considers emergency measures

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SEOUL, Nov. 24 (UPI) — South Korea topped 4,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time ever on Wednesday as breakthrough and critical cases continued to surge, causing government officials to consider tightening virus control measures just weeks into a new phase of living with the disease.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 4,116 new COVID-19 infections Wednesday, surpassing the previous record of 3,292 set last week. The number of seriously ill patients also reached a new high of 586, putting a strain on hospital bed capacity in the Seoul area.

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At the beginning of November, South Korea eased social distancing restrictions to begin the first phase of “living with COVID-19,” allowing larger group gatherings and longer business hours for restaurants and bars.

Schools went back to full in-person participation this week, and health officials had hoped to further loosen regulations in December. However, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Wednesday that the country may instead have to return to stricter measures to contain the latest outbreak.

“The disease control situation is more serious than expected,” Kim said at a government coronavirus task force meeting. “If you look at the Seoul metropolitan area alone, it is an urgent situation where we need to consider triggering an emergency plan at any time.”

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Nationwide, critical care beds for COVID-19 patients were at 71% capacity as of Tuesday, according to the KDCA. However, in the greater Seoul area, home to roughly half of South Korea’s 51 million people, 83.3% of beds were in use.

The KDCA has said it would consider implementing emergency response measures if bed occupancy surpassed 75%.

The recent surge in critically ill COVID-19 patients has been concentrated among the elderly, with those over 60 accounting for 83.7% of serious cases, the KDCA said earlier this week.

The unvaccinated or partially vaccinated comprise over 60% of critical cases, but breakthrough infections have also risen sharply for those in the over-60 group, who were among the first in the country to get vaccinated.

Health officials said last week that the waning effect of vaccines has come more quickly than expected and they are pushing to speed up a rollout of booster shots for people over 60 and other high-risk groups.

South Korea has seen widespread vaccine adoption, with 79.1% of people being fully inoculated and 82.4% having received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday.

However, only 15.7% of 12-17 year-olds have been fully inoculated so far, and Kim urged parents to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible, especially with the return to full in-person school participation.

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South Korea reported 35 deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the country’s overall toll to 3,187.