By KIM TONG-HYUNG – Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea will no longer require people to present proof of vaccination or negative tests to enter an indoor space effective Tuesday, nullifying an important preventive measure during a rapidly developing omicron surge that is increasing hospitalizations and deaths will.
The Health Ministry’s announcement on Monday came as the country set another one-day record for COVID-19 deaths with 114, surpassing Saturday’s previous peak of 112. More than 710 COVID-19 patients were in critical or severe condition, up from 200-300 in mid-February, while nearly half of the country’s COVID-19 intensive care units were occupied.
Park Hyang, a senior health ministry official, said lifting the “anti-epidemic passport” would free up more health workers to help monitor nearly 800,000 virus patients with mild or moderate symptoms who have been asked to stay at home isolate to save hospital space.
Around 250,000 people per day received free rapid antigen tests at health authorities and test stations in the past week. About half of those came from 24-hour evidence of negative tests, according to the ministry.
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Since December, adults have had to view their vaccination status via smartphone apps or provide proof of negative tests to enter potentially crowded spaces such as restaurants, cafes, gyms and karaoke venues.
But the policy had already been called into question by rulings by local courts in cities like Daegu, where a district judge last week ruled the measures for people in their 50s and under excessive. He cited that the government had shifted the focus of its anti-virus campaign to high-risk groups, including people in their 60s and older and those with pre-existing medical conditions.
“We had considered the need to focus our limited public health resources on testing high-risk groups and dealing with those who have already tested positive. … There had also been regional confusion following court rulings,” Park said during a briefing.
She said authorities have no plans to reintroduce the anti-epidemic passport unless the pandemic undergoes another major change, such as the emergence of a new variant of the coronavirus.
“While the anti-epidemic passport has been halted, we are asking people in their 60s or older and unvaccinated people to exercise even more caution than before,” Park added, saying Omicron could be potentially dangerous to them.
Omicron has so far seemed less likely to cause serious illness or death than the Delta strain that hit the country hard in December and early January. But hospitalizations and deaths are rising amid a larger scale of outbreaks that are overwhelming exhausted health and public workers.
The country has been forced to redesign its pandemic response to effectively tolerate the spread of the virus among the broader population while concentrating medical resources to protect priority groups.
Officials have been quick to expand at-home treatments while significantly easing quarantine restrictions. The country has also revamped its testing policy on rapid antigen test kits, despite concerns about their accuracy and propensity for false-negative results, to abolish lab testing mostly for priority groups.
Many South Koreans are wary of the bend-but-not-break approach as the country continues to report some of the world’s highest daily infection counts, including 139,626 on Monday.
With people tired and frustrated by the extended restrictions and the strain on businesses in the service sector, there appears to be limited political capacity to strengthen social distancing ahead of the March 9 presidential election.
Despite the growing outbreak, officials earlier this month extended the restaurant’s hours by an hour to 10pm, though so far they have maintained a six-person limit for private social gatherings.
More than 86% of the country’s more than 51 million people are fully vaccinated and around 61% have received booster shots.
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