South Korea reports deadliest day of pandemic amid Omicron-driven case surge

Health authorities expect daily cases to peak at about 250,000 in mid-March

People queue for coronavirus tests in Seoul on February 26, as South Korea grapples with a surge in infections driven by the Omicron variant. Yonhap via AP
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South Korea on Saturday reported a record 112 deaths from Covid-19 over the previous 24 hours, with new cases also close to record levels as the country grapples with a wave of coronavirus infections driven by the fast-moving Omicron variant.

Health workers diagnosed 166,209 new cases since Friday, representing more than a 37-fold increase from daily levels in mid-January, when Omicron first emerged as the country’s dominant strain. The record for daily cases was set on Wednesday, with 171,451 new infections reported.

Although the Omicron appears less likely to cause serious illness or death than the Delta strain that hit the country hard in December and early January, the volume of infections has pushed up hospitalisations and deaths and is stretching worn-out health and public workers.

More than 640 virus patients were in serious or critical condition, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said, compared to about 200-300 in mid-February. The Health Ministry said about 44 per cent of the country’s intensive care units designated for Covid-19 patients are occupied.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said on Friday health authorities expect the Omicron wave will peak in mid-March, when the country may see daily cases of around 250,000. There are concerns that transmissions could worsen with schools beginning new semesters next month and also because of political rallies ahead of the March 9 presidential election.

Officials on Wednesday approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 and plan to begin inoculating that age group next month.

More than 86 per cent of the country’s population of more than 51 million have been fully vaccinated and around 60 per cent have received booster shots. Fourth doses are being administered to people at nursing homes and those in need of long-term care.

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Updated: February 26, 2022, 10:11 AM