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S Korea eases distancing despite record virus deaths

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) – South Korean officials announced an easing of social distancing restrictions even as the country saw its deadliest day of the pandemic yesterday, reflecting reduced political capacity to deal with a fast-developing Omicron surge in the face of a growing economic toll and a presidential election next week.

Minister of the Interior and Safety Jeon Hae-cheol said the curfew at restaurants, bars, movie theatres and other indoor businesses will be extended by an hour from 10pm to 11pm starting today. He cited people’s fatigue and frustration with extended restrictions and the damage to livelihoods.

Officials did maintain a six-person limit on private social gatherings, acknowledging “uncertainties” posed by an accelerating Omicron spread that has put the country on the verge of a hospital surge.

Jeon’s announcement from a government meeting discussing the national COVID-19 response came shortly before the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 186 deaths in the latest 24 hours, shattering the previous one-day record of 128 set a day earlier.

The 266,853 coronavirus infections diagnosed in the latest 24 hours was also a single-day record and represented a 60-fold increase from the daily levels in mid-January, when Omicron emerged as the dominant strain.

The cumulative national caseload is around 3.96 million after adding more than 3.11 million in February alone.

Omicron seems less likely to cause serious illness or death compared to the Delta variant that hit the country hard in December and January, but hospitalisations have been creeping up amid the greater scale of outbreak. The strain on the hospital system is likely to worsen in the coming weeks, considering the time lags between infections, hospitalisations and deaths.

People waiting for a coronavirus test at a testing site in Seoul. PHOTO: AP

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