The surge of Covid-19 infections turned somewhat downward, but the continuous increase in severely ill patients is increasing burdens on the nation’s healthcare system, officials said.

According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), new virus cases fell for the second straight day Friday. Still, the number of seriously ill patients hit the highest level in 102 days amid the spread of a highly contagious Omicron subvariant.

The country added 128,714 new Covid-19 infections, bringing the total caseload to 21,111,840, the KDCA said. Of the new cases, 464 were from overseas. The tally marked a fall from 137,241 the previous day but was higher than 112,858 a week earlier. The number of seriously ill patients also increased to 453, up 35 from the previous day and the highest since May 24.

The country reported 58 new Covid-19 deaths, down one from Thursday, raising the death toll to 25,499. The fatality rate was 0.12 percent.

Korea's daily Covid-19 cases decreased after reaching around 620,000 in mid-March. However, infections have spiked again due to increased movement and public gatherings since April, when the authorities lifted almost all anti-pandemic curbs.

Imported cases have also continued to rise after the government relaxed entry restrictions for overseas travelers and resumed international flights. Daily imported cases hit a record high of 615 on Wednesday and have stayed over 400 cases this month.

Health authorities said virus cases might peak at around 200,000 this month but remained wary of a further uptick in infections due to the impact of the summer vacation season.

Some experts even predicted the peak daily tally could soar to 330,000 if the current spread continues for four more weeks.

However, government officials said they would prepare for situations where the peak daily infections rise above 200,000 by securing sickbeds for seriously ill patients and making it easier for doctors to prescribe treatments.

The quarantine authorities have secured 7,080 hospital beds exclusively for Covid-19 plus 7,225 general beds, saying they are enough to cope with the peak daily infections of 20,000. The occupancy rate of beds for seriously ill patients stood at 40.8 percent at 5 p.m. Thursday.

“Still, we need about 4,000 more beds to cope with the possible peak of 300,000 cases a day,” said Park Hyang, head of the overall quarantine affairs at the Central Disaster Control Headquarters. “The headquarters will try to secure more beds, closely watching the infection trend.”

To speed up the provision of Covid-19 treatments for high-risk patients, the government will also permit all doctors, regardless of medical departments, to prescribe treatments and increase the number of hospitals that can prescribe treatments to more than 1,000 and that of pharmacies dispensing them, from the present 1,082 to 2,175.

Earlier the month, the government signed additional purchase contracts of Paxlovid for 800,000 patients and Lagevrio for 142,000 patients.

As of Friday, 44.66 million, or 87 percent of the country's population, had received full two-dose vaccinations, and 33.51 million, or 65.3 percent, had received their first booster shots.

About 6.46 million people, or 12.6 percent of the population, had gotten their second booster shots, the KDCA said.

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