I.C.U. bed shortage remains as critical cases stuck above 1,000
Korea recorded 1,081 Covid-19 patients in critical condition as of midnight Saturday, which was the sixth day in a row that the number has remained above 1,000. The first time the number broke 1,000 was on Dec. 17 midnight, when it hit 1,016.
As of Saturday 5 p.m., 77.7 percent of the country's intensive care unit (I.C.U.) beds were occupied, according to the Health Ministry. The level was 82.5 percent in the greater Seoul area, which includes Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon.
In greater Seoul, 150 I.C.U. beds were available, while in the rest of the country, the figure was 152.
All I.C.U. beds were occupied in Sejong and North Gyeongsang. There was only one I.C.U. bed available in Ulsan, three in North Chungcheong region and five in Daejeon, as of Saturday 5 p.m.
The government has asked those with mild cases to be treated at home. They monitor and report their conditions regularly to medical professionals assigned to their cases. As of Saturday midnight, patients in this category numbered 31,686.
If the patient being treated at home lives with other people, they must quarantine at home for up to seven days and undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on the sixth or seventh day.
If they test negative, they are allowed to return to work or school. They have to undergo a second test on the 13th or 14th day to confirm their virus-free status.
Korea is still in its fourth and largest wave of Covid-19.
The country added a total of 5,419 cases as of midnight Saturday, of which 80 were imported, bringing the total number of infections since the pandemic started to 607,463, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Of the new cases, 33 were Omicron infections, bringing the total number of Omicron cases to 376. Of the new cases, 23 were imported — 15 from the United States, two from Britain, and one each from the Maldives, U.A.E., Qatar, Canada, France and the Philippines.
A total of 69 people died from Friday to Saturday, bringing the total Covid-19 deaths to 5,245, for a 0.86 percent death rate.
From Nov. 1, Korea relaxed its social distancing measures, such as restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather and the operation hours for businesses, after 70 percent of the population was fully vaccinated. Under the "Living with Covid" scheme, restrictions were relaxed and vaccine passes for certain facilities, such as clubs, bars and indoor gyms, were introduced.
When the number of daily Covid-19 cases, which came in at around 1,500 from July to mid-September, spiked to over 5,000 by the end of November, the country reintroduced some of the distancing guidelines and from mid-December required the use of vaccine passes at more facilities, including restaurants, cafes, PC bang (internet cafes), noraebang (singing rooms), in addition to the indoor gyms, bars and clubs already covered.
Up to four vaccinated people can use these facilities together, and the unvaccinated are allowed only if they are using the facilities alone. Restaurants and cafes can operate until 9 p.m. Other businesses considered lower risk, such as movie theaters, can remain open until 10 p.m.
These measures will be in place until Jan. 2. Health authorities will review the situation next week and decide whether to extend the measures.
Earlier on Friday, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Korea is in the "final stage" of signing a deal with New York's Pfizer to purchase its antiviral pills to treat Covid-19.
Kim said in a coronviarus response meeting that the Korean government has been negotiating with Pfizer to purchase more than 300,000 doses of the Paxlovid antiviral Covid-19 pill, more than the 70,000 doses previously disclosed.
Kim said that government will announce the details after the contract is confirmed and Korea's Drug Safety Agency grants emergency approval for the use of the drug. An emergency approval could come as early as this week.
Health authorities also announced Friday that a Korean-made PCR test that can detect the Omicron variant within four hours will be available starting Dec. 30.
The KDCA said the new PCR tests were developed through public-private cooperation and that they will be distributed across the country to local governments by Dec. 29 for use starting the following day.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]