South Korea has reported a record daily total of 7,175 new Covid cases as officials urged people to complete their vaccinations.
The prime minister, Kim Boo-kyum, warned that hospitals were coming under intense pressure amid a rise in serious cases, days after the government announced a return to stricter restrictions on social gatherings.
The total caseload rose to 489,484 on Wednesday, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. That was a rise of 2,221 from a day earlier, the biggest daily jump since the start of the pandemic.
The number of critically ill patients also rose to a record high of 840, up 66 from a day early, while the death toll increased by 63 to 4,020, the agency said. People aged over 60 account for 35% of the total caseload and 84% of critically ill patients, including those whose immunities have waned since receiving their first two vaccine doses early this year.
Kim said the government would increase the number of hospital beds in the Seoul area, where 80% of infections were reported, but conceded that it would be “tough to catch up with the pace of rising cases”.
It would also mobilise more medical personnel to monitor patients with mild symptoms who are treating themselves at home and speed up hospital transfers among those who develop severe symptoms, Kim told a virus response meeting. Private clinics would be enlisted to treat Covid patients to ease the pressure on large hospitals, he added.
The recent surge, in a country that had been relatively successful in keeping infections and deaths to a minimum, is being attributed to young people who have yet to be fully vaccinated and older citizens who have not received boosters.
Having kept the virus in check for much of the pandemic, South Korea has had, on average, more than 5,000 new cases a day for the past week. It has identified 38 cases of the Omicron variant.
In response, the government introduced stricter social distancing and other measures on Monday that will remain in place until early January, the Yonhap news agency said – a move that came just weeks after it eased measures as part of its “living with Covid-19” approach.
Private gatherings will be limited to a maximum of six people in the Seoul area and to eight outside the capital. The numbers had previously been capped at 10 and 12.
In addition, people wishing to access “high-risk” venues such as pubs, saunas and gyms will have to show proof of full vaccination or a negative coronavirus test.
Kim acknowledged that the measures would create anxiety among small business owners, but added: “We know from experience that if virus prevention falters, then so do people’s lives.”
Although 80.7% of South Korea’s 52 million population have been double jabbed, younger people are being urged to complete their vaccinations after the education ministry reported this week that almost all of the children and young people diagnosed with Covid-19 over the previous fortnight had not received their second dose. Only 8.8% of the population has had a booster dose, Yonhap said.