Korea's Covid death toll accelerated last month
A total of 41 people died from Saturday to Sunday, bringing the total death toll to 3,893, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Of them, 1,035, or 26 percent, died since the country started relaxing social distancing measures Nov. 1 as part of its “With Corona” scheme, Korea’s version of “With Covid” measures elsewhere.
It relaxed restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather both publicly and in private, and allowed cafes and restaurants to operate at all hours. The country relaxed restrictions after more than 70 percent of its population was fully vaccinated.
The relaxations were rolled back a bit Monday due to a spike in cases and the threat of the new Omicron variant.
The number of daily infections, which rarely surpassed 2,000 before Nov. 1, spiked to over 5,000 on Nov. 30.
Korea added 4,325 new cases as of midnight Sunday, of which 29 were imported, bringing the total caseload to 477,358.
The spike in cases has taken a toll on the health system, with 994 I.C.U. beds in use out of 1,237 total in the country as of 5 p.m. Sunday, or 80.4 percent. In the greater Seoul area, there were only 38 I.C.U. beds available in Seoul; 63 in Gyeonggi; and five in Incheon.
Included in the new cases were Omicron cases.
Korea added 12 more Omicron cases as of midnight Sunday, of whom 10 were local and two imported, bringing its total Omicron caseload to 24.
Korea first reported Omicron cases on Dec. 1, when five people tested positive. Cases are growing as three of the confirmed patients were found to have participated in a church program in Michuhol District in Incheon on Nov. 28, attended by almost 780 people.
Health authorities were tracking down around 1,200 people who were suspected to have come into direct or indirect contact with the Omicron patients.
Korea closed its borders to foreigners flying in from eight countries in southern Africa — South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Mozambique and Malawi — from Nov. 28, two days after the World Health Organization declared Omicron a variant of concern.
Korea added Nigeria to the list on Dec. 3, and suspended all direct flights from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Korea for two weeks starting Dec. 4. The first Koreans who tested positive for Omicron flew in from Nigeria, with a stop-over in Ethiopia.
There have been some protests from these countries, including one from the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who said last week that international travel bans on South Africa were unjustified and not based on scientific basis.
“It’s understandable that the Korean government must take precautionary measures, but canceling all direct flights from Ethiopia to Korea has been very rough on the airline,” said Miretab Teklaye, a country manager of Ethiopian Airlines, based in Seoul. “We hope the government will consider other options.”
Ethiopian Airlines runs the only direct flights from Addis Ababa to Incheon.
Passengers who need to fly from Addis Ababa to Incheon need to take a trip to Dubai or Bangkok.
Koreans from the nine African countries can still fly in, but need to self-isolate for 10 days at a temporary residential facility and receive four PCR tests — before entry, on the first day after entry, on the fifth day after entry and before their release from quarantine.
Omicron cases have been found in more than 30 countries including Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Japan, the United States, Canada and Brazil, in addition to Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana and Botswana.
Korea decided to put a halt into its gradual return to normalcy and implement stricter social distancing measures following a surge in new Covid-19 cases and the emergence of the more transmissible Omicron variant.
Starting Monday, the cap on private gatherings has been cut to six people in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi and eight in other regions for four weeks until Jan. 2. Previously it was 10 in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi and 12 in other regions.
Also from Monday, the use of vaccine passes, called "quarantine passes," have been expanded to include more indoor establishments — such as restaurants, cafes, hagwon (cram schools), movie theaters, libraries, study cafes, PC bang (internet cafes), indoor athletic fields, museums, party rental spaces and massage salons.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]