Infections drop to the 3,000s for first time since Nov.
Health authorities said new infections appear to be on a downward trend, but added it might take five to 10 days for that trend to be reflected in the number of critically ill patients.
Son Young-rae, senior epidemiological strategist at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, said in a briefing Tuesday, "There has been a transition to a downward trend from a situation where there was a continuous spread in infections."
There were 3,865 new infections, bringing total cases to 615,532, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). The country recorded 46 more fatalities, bringing the total death toll to 5,346.
This marked the first time daily cases fell below 4,000 since Nov. 30, and a significant drop from the 4,207 cases recorded Monday. There was less coronavirus testing over the Christmas weekend amid subzero weather.
The figure contrasts with a record high of 7,849 cases reached on Dec. 15.
There was an 81.1 percent I.C.U. bed occupancy rate in the greater Seoul area as of 5 p.m. Monday, a slight drop from the previous day's 83.6 percent. I.C.U. beds in Seoul were at 78.6 percent capacity, 81.2 percent in Gyeonggi and 91.3 percent in Incheon.
In Seoul, 85 I.C.U. beds out of a total of 398 were available, 73 out of 388 in Gyeonggi and just eight out of 93 in Incheon.
The I.C.U. capacity nationwide was slightly lower at 76.7 percent, down 2.2 percentage points from the previous day.
There was a drop in critically ill patients waiting for beds to the single digits, decreasing to nine people from 107 the previous day.
This marks the first time in nine weeks that the weekly average number of cases decreased. Average daily cases from Dec. 19 to 25 were 6,101, a decrease of 11.1 percent from the previous week's average of 6,855.
Health authorities attribute the downward trend to stronger social distancing measures, expanding use of the vaccine pass system and a high booster shot rate.
"Some of today's critically ill patients were infected yesterday or the day before, but most of them are patients whose symptoms worsened after a certain period of time after infection," said Son. "It will take time for a reduction in the size of infections to lead to a reduction in critically ill patients."
The percentage of critically ill patients over the age of 60 was down in the past week to 25.5 percent compared to 30.5 percent the previous week. As of Tuesday, 71.6 percent of people over 60 had received booster shots.
The government reinstated a set of social distancing restrictions nationwide on Dec. 18, limiting private gatherings and imposing nighttime curfews on restaurants and most businesses through Jan. 2.
This put a halt to the government's "living with Covid" scheme that began in November, aimed at a phased return to normalcy.
Health authorities also said that the current two-week self-isolation period for those infected with the Omicron variant or individuals who come in close contact with a confirmed Omicron patient will be shortened to 10 days. This is the same standard as applied to asymptomatic patients of other variants such as Delta, after health officials found Omicron doesn't behave differently from these variants after a month-long analysis.
There were four additional omicron infections in Korea bringing total cases linked to the variant to 449.
Of the 3,777 domestic cases, 1,254 were reported in Seoul, 1,045 in Gyeonggi and 233 in Incheon. There were 88 imported cases, including two new omicron infections.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday shortened the recommended isolation period for asymptomatic coronavirus cases from 10 days to five days. However, Korean health authorities said it may be difficult to immediately shorten the isolation period for asymptomatic patients here.
The KDCA said as of Tuesday that 85.8 percent of the population received at least their first Covid-19 jab, 82.5 percent are fully vaccinated and 31.1 percent received booster shots.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]