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S. Korea to boost COVID testing, beds as cases expected to peak at 300,000

People wait in line at a local COVID-19 testing station in Mapo-gu, Seoul, Wednesday. (Yonhap)
People wait in line at a local COVID-19 testing station in Mapo-gu, Seoul, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Health authorities estimate that the new omicron wave would peak at around 300,000 COVID-19 cases a day, the government said Wednesday.

The government added that it would expand the country’s medical capacity to cope with the increasing number of infections and severe cases.

”The number of daily COVID-19 infections, at its peak, is expected to come to some 300,000,“ said Lee Ki-il, second vice minister of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, during a COVID-19 response meeting held at the central government complex in Seoul.

On Wednesday, the government introduced a series of antivirus measures, which focus on treating patients in high-risk groups, those who are aged 60 and older, as well as people with underlying medical conditions.

The government also made clear once more that it would not reinstate social distancing measures.

“It is difficult to fully control the fast spread (of COVID-19) only with social distancing rules,“ Lee said, adding that the country “will continue its path to return to normal, and voluntary social distancing efforts are needed to overcome the new wave of COVID-19 infections.”

One of the government’s priority measures include increasing the number of one-stop COVID-19 treatment centers -- where people can take virus tests and get in-person medical services -- to 10,000 from the current 6,500, Lee said.

Lee added that the government has already issued an administrative order to secure an additional 1,435 hospital beds to tackle anticipated increases in the number of critically ill patients. More hospital beds will be added depending on how the pandemic develops, Lee noted.

The government will also strengthen antivirus measures at facilities that are vulnerable to infection, such as senior care centers. Workers and patients at those facilities would have to conduct polymerase chain reaction tests once a week, and in-person visits will be limited, the government said.

For patients in high-risk groups, health authorities will allow a fast-track medical service, through which they can receive COVID-19 tests, get prescriptions and be hospitalized within the same day if needed.

On securing enough COVID-19 pills, Lee said the government will acquire adequate supply for 340,000 patients in the second half this year. More will be secured for another 600,000 patients during the first half of 2023.

More temporary COVID-19 testing stations will be installed as well. Fifty-five of them will be set up in the greater Seoul area, and another 15 outside of the metropolitan area. There were a total of 218 temporary testing stations across the country in February, but the number had gone down to four after cases declined. South Korea’s new COVID-19 cases continued to stay above 70,000 for the second consecutive day, mainly due to the highly contagious omicron strain BA.5.

The country added 76,402 COVID-19 infections during the 24 hours of Tuesday, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. The daily tally almost doubled from the previous Tuesday’s 40,266.

There were 12 virus-related deaths Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 24,777. The fatality rate stood at 0.13 percent.

The number of critically ill patients reached 96, up from the previous day’s 91.

By Shim Woo-hyun (ws@heraldcorp.com)
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