Amid the gradual decline of the Omicron wave, the government decided Friday to maintain its social distancing measures for two more weeks, albeit in loosened forms.
It will increase the size of private gatherings from eight to 10 people and extend the business curfew from 11:00 p.m. to midnight.
This is the fourth easing of quarantine measures since Feb. 18.
government expected the eased measure to have much impact on the epidemic, increasing new infections by 10 to 20 percent. It will implement the adjustment plan until April 17 and decide whether to lift the distance rules completely. Observers said it suggests that the renewed measures could be the last social distancing rules.
“If we manage the medical system stably while reducing the number of serious cases and deaths over the next two weeks, the government will boldly reorganize the remaining quarantine measures, including social distancing schemes,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said.
The social distancing system, which started in May 2020, has been going on for nearly two years.
Last November, the government changed the quarantine system to a step-by-step recovery of everyday life by sharply relaxing quarantine measures. However, the consequent advent of the Omicron wave and concerns about the collapse of the medical system forced officials to return to strict social distancing in mid-December.
If the government lifts social distancing rules after two weeks, it will be the second attempt to try to restore daily life in Korea. According to health officials, all quarantine measures will disappear, except for wearing a face mask indoors.
However, experts pointed out that there are still many tasks that the government needs to tackle before the nation returns to normalcy.
They emphasized that the top priority should be improving the medical system to respond to the surge in confirmed and severe cases.
While the number of confirmed cases has recently turned downward, the number of severe cases has risen to an all-time high, and the death toll is pouring in at a rate of 300 to 400 daily.
As of midnight Friday, the number of new confirmed cases stood at 280,273, a decrease of about 40,000 from the previous day. However, authorities have confirmed 1,299 severe cases and 360 deaths.
Quarantine authorities anticipate that severe cases and deaths will continue to rise until the middle of this month, with the BA.2 mutation, also known as stealth Omicron, considered a variable that will affect the cases here.
Experts emphasized the need to refine the medical response more carefully to reduce the damage to the high-risk group as much as possible.
“It is unlikely that the number of Covid-19 deaths in April and May will be fewer than those in the past two months,” said Eom Joong-sik, an infectious disease professor at Gachon University Gil Medical Center. “If quarantine is relaxed amid insufficient preparation, it will be impossible to reduce the death of high-risk groups.”
Also, new variants can occur. If the nation relaxes quarantine measures, it can affect the possibility of a large-scale epidemic, Eom added, stressing the need for a strong variant monitoring system.
The government seeks to return to the pre-Covid-19 medical system, allowing neighborhood clinics to treat Covid-19 patients, like flu patients, for instance.
The government is also considering lowering Covid-19 from Level 1 infectious disease to Level 2, like tuberculosis, chickenpox, and measles.
“The Coivd-19 epidemic will likely turn to a decreasing trend, but considering the dominant species of the BA.2 mutation, the number of confirmed cases is highly likely to remain above a certain level,” KDCA Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong said. “It is necessary to minimize the seriousness and mortality rate.”
The country has provided booster shots to 32.74 million people. The number of fully vaccinated people came to 44.48 million, accounting for 86.7 percent of the total population, the KDCA said.