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South Korea sees record-high COVID-19 case count amid Omicron worries

South Korea sees record-high COVID-19 case count amid Omicron worries
South Korea saw new  COVID-19 cases reach a record high on Wednesday amid fears that the Omicron variant has reached the country. File Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- South Korea crossed the 5,000 mark in daily new COVID-19 cases for the first time and saw the number of seriously ill patients reach a new high Wednesday amid concerns that the new Omicron variant has arrived in the country.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 5,123 new cases, topping last week's previous record of 4,115, with the majority driven by cluster infections in the greater Seoul area.

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The number of critically ill patients climbed to an all-time high of 723, putting a strain on hospital capacity in the Seoul area. Intensive-care beds for COVID-19 patients were at 89.2% capacity as of Tuesday, according to the KDCA.

Health officials said Tuesday that the first suspected cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 have reached South Korea. Authorities are awaiting the results of a genome sequencing test on a group of travelers who arrived from Nigeria last week to confirm the new strain, which has been labeled a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization.

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South Korea began restricting visas and arrivals from eight African nations on Sunday, including South Africa, where the new variant was first detected.

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The surge in cases has come after South Korea eased social distancing restrictions at the start of November, allowing larger group gatherings and longer business hours for restaurants and bars.

Schools went back to full in-person participation last week, and health officials had hoped to further loosen regulations in mid-December as the country moved into a "living with COVID-19" phase. However, President Moon Jae-in announced on Monday that the country would pause a further lifting of regulations due to the surge in cases.

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On Wednesday, Interior Minister Jeon Hae-cheol told a virus response task force that the government was considering additional emergency measures to contain the spread and was looking to secure at least 1,300 more hospital beds by the middle of this month, according to news agency Yonhap.

The surge in severe cases is concentrated among older citizens, with 84.4% of seriously ill patients age 60 or over, according to the KDCA. Breakthrough infections have risen sharply in the over-60 group, who were among the first in the country to get vaccinated.

Health officials said last month that the waning effect of vaccines has come more quickly than expected, prompting the government to speed up the rollout of booster shots. Nearly 80% of the population has been fully vaccinated, but only around 7.5% of those inoculated have received a booster dose.

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South Korea reported 34 additional deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the country's toll to 3,658.

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