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Omicron’s growing presence puts Korea on alert

Foreign travelers arriving in protective clothing at Incheon Airport Terminal 1 on Monday morning are moved to quarantine facilities due to the spread of the omicron variant. (Yonhap)
Foreign travelers arriving in protective clothing at Incheon Airport Terminal 1 on Monday morning are moved to quarantine facilities due to the spread of the omicron variant. (Yonhap)
The growing presence of omicron is putting disease control authorities on alert in Korea, with the tally rising by 12 in one day to 24 on Monday.

Korea now has 24 known omicron cases -- six of them recent travelers from Nigeria and South Africa along with 18 people they came in contact with after returning. Omicron cases were first detected here on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said in a government meeting concerning the COVID-19 response Monday that “all resources will be directed at containing the threat of the new variant.” Last week, the national disease control agency had said that it is “likely that that omicron may already be spreading locally.”

For the 24 hours of Sunday, Korea logged 4,325 more cases of COVID-19, down from the previous day’s 5,128, as yet another grim milestone was passed over the weekend.

On Saturday, Korea announced its highest-ever number of deaths from COVID-19 in one day, counted from the day prior. Seventy people died of COVID-19 over the 24 hours ending midnight Friday -- on the same day the government said it would be pausing its plans for a phased return to normal.

After 32 days of lifted restrictions from COVID-19 rules, Korea decided to reinstate some from Monday through the next four weeks at least, as hospitals scramble to make room for a cascade of patients. Friday’s decision deviates from President Moon Jae-in’s Nov. 29 and Dec. 2 addresses that the country would push through with reopening.

Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-cheol said in a briefing ahead of the weekend that the health care system was on the verge of collapse, and that Korea was forced to “pause its progress toward normal life and roll back social distancing requirements.”

No more than six people can gather at a time in and around Seoul, where the outbreak is the largest, and people must present proof of vaccination or a negative test for COVID-19 to enter everyday places like cafes and restaurants.

On Monday, more than 80 percent of all intensive care beds and 72 percent of nonintensive care beds for COVID-19 patients at hospitals around the country were occupied, despite the majority of patients with active infections being isolated at home for recovery.

To turn around the bed shortages, Korea has made at-home recovery the default care arrangement for all COVID-19 patients starting Nov. 26. There had been 14,944 patients placed under home isolation nationwide as of Sunday.

Nearly 1,000 patients are still waiting for beds as hospitals are overwhelmed. By Sunday, there were 982 patients left stranded without a bed for longer than a day, 55 percent of whom were vulnerable patients in their 70s or older.

In the absence of restrictions, the monthly case fatality rate has soared to a record 0.94 percent in November from October’s 0.68 percent. Over the last week, an average of 44 people died of COVID-19 each day -- more than triple the seven-day average of 12 seen in the last week of October, just before the Nov. 1 return to normal kicked off.

Since the vaccine program started in February, Korea has fully vaccinated more than 80 percent of its 51 million population. Just 3.9 million have received a booster shot. Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said the aim was to give 13 million a booster dose before the year’s end.

To date, COVID-19 has infected 477,358 here, leaving 3,893 dead.
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