Korea's daily Covid-19 tally hit the record high of 3,292 on Thursday, rising above 3,000 for two consecutive days for the first time since the nation confirmed its first case on Jan. 20 last year.
The country’s cumulative caseload has climbed to 406,065, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). Twenty-nine more people died of Covid-19, raising the death toll to 3,187 with a fatality rate of 0.78 percent.
The surge in virus cases comes after the government shifted to the "living with covid" strategy to remove virus restrictions by the end of February of next year. The eased curbs fully lifted operation hour restrictions on cafes, restaurants, and other businesses, except for nightlife establishments, and raised the private gathering limit to 10 people for the greater Seoul area.
The number of severely or critically ill patients also recorded the highest level of 522, following 506 on Thursday.
Earlier, the government announced that the current medical system could manage up to 500 critically ill patients, but the country has exceeded its limit for two consecutive days.
As the number of patients with severe cases increases, beds to accommodate them also fill up rapidly.
Of the beds set aside to treat critically ill Covid-19 patients nationwide, 63.8 percent are already used. The occupancy rate of ICU beds climbed to 78.2 percent in the Seoul metro region and 80.9 percent in the capital city alone.
Health officials said they would immediately examine emergency plans if the bed occupancy for severe cases surpasses the 75 percent threshold.
The KDCA put forth a new five-tier system Wednesday to assess the Covid-19 risk level every week before deciding whether to continue the eased social distancing scheme.
In classifying the risks into five levels, the health authorities will base their judgment on three categories of indicators – indexes related to healthcare and quarantine affairs, indexes related to new Covid-19 outbreaks, and indexes related to vaccination.
If the risk reaches a high or a very high level, authorities will evaluate the pandemic situation and potentially enforce its emergency plan while halting the relaxed curbs.
President Moon Jae-in also raised concerns about the surge in virus cases.
"Relevant ministries and officials should concentrate on stabilizing the situation by operating the quarantine and medical response systems seamlessly," Moon said. "Notably, they should make every effort to properly respond to the increase in the number of confirmed cases and severely ill patients especially among older adults."
In addition to shortening the intervals of booster vaccinations, President Moon called for active cooperation among medical institutions to ensure that the government could secure enough hospital beds to treat Covid-19 patients without any setbacks.
"In most countries, the recovery of daily life is not smooth," Moon said. "The government will do its best to ensure the smooth progress of the phased return to normalcy as it has done in overcoming so many obstacles."
Moon thanked the continued devotion from medical professionals and vowed to provide full support for them.
However, private hospitals pointed out that the government's plan to secure more beds to treat critically ill patients is off the mark.
At an emergency meeting of the heads of general hospitals in the Seoul metro region on Tuesday, the participants noted that they are stretched very thin as there is a lack of medical personnel to treat severe Covid-19 patients.
They pointed out that the current situation affected the hospitals’ ability to treat critically ill patients not related to Covid-19, seeing delays in treating patients with cancer, cardiovascular or cerebrovascular diseases.
The government has vaccinated 42,110,652 people – 11,114,600 with the AstraZeneca vaccine, 22,800,342 with Pfizer's vaccine, 1,494,728 with Janssen's vaccine, 6,655,991 with Moderna's vaccine – with the first shot of the vaccine up 44,991 from the previous day.
As of Thursday, 78.5 percent of Koreans received full vaccination, while 82 percent have gotten their first shots. The KDCA expects full vaccination rates to reach 80 percent around mid-December.