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New COVID-19 cases below 100,000; distancing rules to be lifted this week

A citizen receives a COVID-19 test at a temporary testing center in front of Seoul Station on Friday. (Yonhap)
A citizen receives a COVID-19 test at a temporary testing center in front of Seoul Station on Friday. (Yonhap)

South Korea's new coronavirus cases fell below 100,000 on Sunday amid the continuing slowdown in infections, with the country set to lift major social distancing rules this week to return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

The country added 93,001 more COVID-19 infections, including 18 cases from overseas, bringing the total caseload to 16,305,752, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

The tally marked a drop from 107,916 Saturday and 125,846 Friday. Daily virus cases fell below 100,000 for the first time in nine weeks for any virus counts announced Sunday.

Daily virus infections have been on the decline after peaking at 621,178 on March 17 amid the fast spread of the omicron variant.

The death toll from COVID-19 came to 21,092, up 203 from the previous day.

The number of critically ill patients came to 893, down from 913 a day ago. Critical cases have also been falling after hitting a record high of 1,315 on March 31.

Starting Monday, South Korea will lift all COVID-19 social distancing rules, except the mask mandate, in its major step toward a return to normalcy after restrictions were first introduced in March 2020.

Curfews on restaurants, cafes and other small businesses will be completely lifted, while the limit on the size of private gatherings will also be removed from the 10-person cap.

The country also plans to downgrade the COVID-19 infectious disease level by one notch to the second-highest level of its four-tier system.

This means COVID-19 patients will not be obliged to be in quarantine and they will receive treatments at local clinics like an endemic disease. The new rule will be implemented in late May after a four-week transition period.

Health officials said although overall risks posed by the pandemic fell, there will be continued outbreaks of sporadic waves down the road.

The government predicted the number of daily virus cases could hover between 50,000 and 100,000 for quite some time.

Of the locally transmitted cases, Seoul reported 14,805 patients and its surrounding Gyeonggi Province added 23,117 cases. Incheon, west of Seoul, identified 4,874.

As of midnight Saturday, 44.53 million, or 86.8 percent of the 52 million population, had fully been vaccinated, and 33 million, or 64.3 percent, had received booster shots, the KDCA said. (Yonhap)

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