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South Korea eases distancing amid slowing omicron spread


SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea will ease some of its pandemic restrictions starting next week as officials express cautious hope that the worst of its omicron outbreak is over.

The limit on private social gatherings will increase from eight to 10 people from Monday, while restaurants, bars and other indoor spaces can remain open an hour later, until midnight, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said on Friday. .

Officials have said most social distancing restrictions could be lifted, except for an indoor mask mandate, if the outbreak slows further and the medical response remains stable over the next two weeks.

Kim’s announcement at a government anti-virus meeting came after the country reported a daily average of 316,000 new coronavirus cases over the past seven days, a slight decrease from the average of 357,800. the previous week. The single-day high was 621,187 on March 17.

While Kim said the country was likely past the peak of infections, pressure on hospitals remained concerning, given the week or longer intervals between infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Officials also say the highly transmissible omicron subvariant called BA.2 is slowing the decline in overall infections.

“Fortunately, the outbreak has slowed down for the second week in a row,” Kim said. “But there is continued concern about an increase in severe cases and deaths that could occur after time lags, the spread of ‘stealth omicron’ or BA.2, which has become the dominant strain, and an expected increase in travel in spring. ”

The country recorded an average of 328 deaths last week, including 360 in the past 24 hours, while around 1,300 virus patients were in serious or critical condition. More than 64% of South Korea’s 2,800 intensive care units designated for the treatment of COVID-19 were occupied.

Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said social distancing measures have clearly become less effective because omicron is much more contagious than previous variants of the virus.

“Even if we ease social distancing, the increase in infections should only be around 10-20%,” he told a briefing.

Quarantine requirements for close contacts, hospitalization for mild cases and proof of vaccination or negative tests when entering public areas were some of the measures eased or lifted earlier.