Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-cheol said Thursday that the government is changing its quarantine strategy according to the characteristics of the Omicron variant, dismissing any political implications behind the recently eased restrictions.

“There are criticisms about the government’s sending a relaxing message although the nation has yet to reach the peak of the Omicron wave,” Minister Kwon made the remark in an online meeting with reporters.

Pointing out that other countries also showed downward trends after peaking out, Kwon said the government only responded following a global trend.  

The top health policymaker’s comment comes after a series of remarks by quarantine officials, such as “the beginning stage of transit toward managing Covid-19 like an endemic,” “nation is surmounting the last hurdle in recovering normal daily life,” or “Korea needs to undergo a process to move toward an endemic.”

Some critics connected the recent government message to “political quarantine” in the runup to the presidential election on March 9.

However, Kwon dismissed such speculation, saying, “Maybe, they say so because the timing coincides with the presidential poll. However, the government has long been preparing for the Omicron variant.” 

On Thursday, Korea reported 170,016 new virus cases, including 169,846 local cases, raising the total caseload to 2,499,188, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

Daily infections surpassed the 100,000 level for the first time last week and soared to a record high of 171,452 on Wednesday. Thursday's figure marked a threefold increase from two weeks ago.

The country added 82 more deaths, raising the death toll to 7,689. The fatality rate was 0.31 percent. The number of critically ill patients came to 581, up sharply from the previous day's 512. The figure rose nearly threefold in a week.
The rise in total infections pushed up the number of patients receiving at-home treatment to an all-time high of 587,798.

The health authorities have said that the omicron wave could reach a peak by early next month, with the daily caseload rocketing up to 270,000. On Wednesday, a state-run institute said the daily caseload could spike to over 330,000 in two weeks.

Wednesday's tally of over 170,000 cases marked the world's second-largest daily infections after Germany, which reported 221,478 new patients, according to a statistics site, Our World in Data.

However, the number of seriously ill patients has stayed far lower here than in other nations, the KDCA said. In Korea, 9.36 people were critically ill Covid-19 patients per 1 million people, while the corresponding figures for the United States and Germany stood at 31.4 persons and 28.6.

"We've seen a growing number of deaths and seriously ill patients in recent days. How to manage the situation is a crucial task for us," KDCA official Lim Sook-young said.

As of Wednesday, 30.85 million people, or 60.1 percent of the country's 52 million population, had received booster shots. The number of fully vaccinated people came to 44.32 million, accounting for 86.4 percent, according to the KDCA.

Health officials repeated their calls on the people to receive vaccines, as a booster shot reduces chances of developing severe cases and deaths from Covid-19 by over 80 percent under the Omicron wave.

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