South Korea tightens social distancing to fight wave of virus

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea is tightening recently relaxed restrictions on social gatherings as it grapples with its worst wave of the virus since the start of the pandemic.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea is tightening recently relaxed restrictions on social gatherings as it grapples with its worst wave of the virus since the start of the pandemic.

From next week, private social gatherings of seven or more people will be banned in the densely populated capital of Seoul and neighboring metropolitan areas, which have been hit hardest by a spread from the delta that threatens to overwhelm communities. hospital capacities. Rallies will be limited to eight people in areas outside the capital region, officials said on Friday.

Adults will also be required to check their immunization status through apps to use restaurants, cinemas, museums, libraries and other indoor locations. Most of these sites will only admit fully vaccinated adults, while restaurants and cafes will be allowed to accept one adult in each group who is not fully vaccinated or vaccinated at all.

Authorities plan to extend vaccination certificates to children between the ages of 12 and 18 from February, when they expect more of them to be vaccinated.

Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said assembly restrictions will be maintained for at least four weeks as authorities monitor the development of the virus situation.

Previously, the limit for social gatherings was 10 people in the greater capital region and 12 in other regions, whether or not participants were fully vaccinated. Kwon said officials are also considering limiting indoor dining hours at restaurants, which are currently allowed to open for 24 hours, but have decided to suspend for now due to livelihood concerns. .

“The situation is getting worse and worse – the daily increase in infections has reached a level of around 5,000 and there is a growing danger of our health care system reaching the limit,” Kwon said in a briefing.

“In addition to that, we have confirmed cases of the (new) variant of the omicron coronavirus and there are concerns that it may spread further in local communities,” he added, referring to the first six cases of The country’s omicron found since Wednesday that have been linked to arrivals from Nigeria.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health officials suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 4,944 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday, a day after South Korea set a one-day record of 5,266 new cases. The number of patients infected with the virus in severe or critical condition has reached a record high of 736. The death toll in the country is now 3,739 after reporting 30 to 50 deaths every day in recent weeks.

The wave of the virus was a wake-up call for South Korea, which eased social distancing rules in early November and fully reopened schools on November 22 in what officials had described as a first step towards restoring peace. normality before the pandemic.

By allowing larger social gatherings and lifting limits on indoor dining hours, officials hoped that improving immunization rates across the country would help end hospitalizations and deaths even as the virus continues to spread. .

However, health workers are grappling with an increase in severe cases among people in their 60s or older, who have rejected vaccines or whose immunities waned after being vaccinated at the start of the vaccine rollout that began in February. .

As of Friday, more than 80% of a population of more than 51 million people were fully immunized. But only 7% of the population received booster shots.

Kim Tong-hyung, The Associated Press

Carol N. Valencia