South Korean officials announced an easing of social distancing restrictions, even as the country saw its deadliest day of the COVID-19 pandemic yesterday, reflecting reduced political capacity to deal with a fast-developing surge of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 in the face of a growing economic toll and a presidential election next week.
South Korean Minister of the Interior and Safety Jeon Hae-cheol said that the start of curfew at restaurants, bars, movie theaters and other indoor businesses is to be pushed back by one hour from 10pm to 11pm starting today.
He cited people’s fatigue and frustration with extended restrictions, and the damage to livelihoods.
Officials have maintained a six-person limit on private social gatherings, citing “uncertainties” posed by Omicron.
Jeon’s announcement from a government meeting discussing the national COVID-19 response came shortly before South Korea’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 186 deaths within 24 hours, breaking the previous one-day record of 128 set a day earlier.
Omicron seems less likely to cause serious illness or death compared with the Delta variant that hit the country hard in December last year and January, but hospitalizations have been creeping up amid the greater scale of outbreak.
While nearly 800 people with COVID-19 were in serious or critical conditions, South Korean Deputy Minister of Health Lee Ki-il said that the country was not in immediate danger of running out of hospital beds, with nearly half of the 2,700 intensive care units designated for COVID-19 treatment still available.
Health experts advising the government had opposed easing restrictions, but insisted that the move was inevitable considering the shock on service sector businesses,” Lee said.
“The decision on social distancing measures was made in consideration of both the epidemiological situation and livelihoods,” Lee said during a media briefing. “I want to stress that the decision was made after real, careful deliberation.”
The move to extend indoor dining hours came after officials removed another key preventive measure last week that had required adults to show proof of vaccination or negative tests to enter potentially crowded spaces such as restaurants, coffee shops and gyms.
The Omicron surge has prompted the country to reshape its pandemic response in a way that tolerates the virus’ spread among the broader population while concentrating medical resources to protect priority groups.
However, there is growing concern over the bend-but-not-break approach, as the country continues to report some of the world’s highest daily infection numbers.
More than 925,000 COVID-19 cases with mild or moderate symptoms have been asked to isolate at home to save hospital space.
The country has also reshaped its testing policy to promote rapid antigen test kits, despite concerns over their propensity for false-negative results, to save laboratory tests mostly for priority groups.
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