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Korea puts reopening plans into reverse as cases soar, omicron spreads

People stand in line to get COVID-19 tests at a testing site in Michuhol District in Incheon on Sunday (Yonhap)
People stand in line to get COVID-19 tests at a testing site in Michuhol District in Incheon on Sunday (Yonhap)

South Korea moved to tighten limits on gatherings again and expanded the use of mandatory vaccine passes, as new COVID-19 cases in Korea have hovered around the 5,000 mark for several days.

According to health authorities, 5,128 new cases were tallied as of midnight Saturday, pushing the cumulative total to over 473,034. Although the latest figure was down 224 from the previous day, it is the highest the country has recorded for a Saturday, when figures typically drop due to the smaller number of tests carried out over the weekend.

The number of patients in serious or critical condition also remains high, at 744.

The number of COVID-19 patients confirmed to have the new omicron variant has risen to 12, with three more individuals confirmed Saturday.

Of the 12, four appear to have contracted the variant abroad, and eight were infected locally through direct or indirect contact with the four who arrived in Korea from Nigeria on Nov. 24.

The four initial cases are a husband and wife living in Incheon with connections to a church in the city and two women in their 50s based in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province.

According to authorities, the Incheon residents spread the variant to their teenage son and an acquaintance. The acquaintance then spread the virus to his wife, mother-in-law and another acquaintance. The authorities believe that the latest three confirmed with the omicron variant contracted the virus from the Incheon couple’s acquaintance.

Authorities are currently monitoring 1,088 individuals who came into contact with confirmed omicron patients in Incheon, of whom 522 have been categorized as having come into close contact with the confirmed patients.

With record daily figures, the country is set to go into toughened social distancing measures for four weeks from Monday, putting on hold plans for a phased return to normal.

From Monday, private gatherings will be limited to six people in Seoul and the surrounding regions and to eight in other parts of the country.

The limit on private gatherings will be enforced regardless of vaccination status, and only one unvaccinated person will be allowed in such gatherings. Unvaccinated people will only be allowed to use restaurants and cafes alone, or with fully vaccinated individuals within the limited numbers.

Vaccine passes will also be required at a wider range of facilities, including cafes and restaurants, private academies, cinemas and theaters, cybercafes, indoor sports venues, museums and galleries.

The government plans to gradually expand the application of vaccine passes starting next year, and include those aged 12-18 from February. 

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)
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