South Korea Has Record Number of COVID Patients Deemed Serious or Critical

South Korea reached a new record number of patients with COVID-19 who are deemed as serious or critical as the country continues to struggle with the previous Delta variant as the new omicron variant enters the country, the Associated Press reported.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention (KDCA) said there are
currently 733 patients infected with the virus that are in serious or critical condition. The intensive care units specifically designated for COVID-19 patients are already at 90 percent occupation.

Jung Eun-Kyeong, commissioner of KDCA, said South Korean's in their 60's and older make up 42 percent of the virus patients that were deemed in serious or critical condition. However, less than 8 percent of that age group are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

Officials for the KDCA said there are 4,100 new coronavirus cases that came directly from the capital, Seoul, and the surrounding regions. There's a total of 5,266 new cases for the country making it break its daily record for new cases for the second day in a row.

The country had 47 patients die in the past 24 hours with a total death toll of 3,705.

Jung worried that with the new Omicron variant entering the country people will postpone getting their booster shots until pharmaceutical companies create a new vaccine to target the variant.

"It's not yet clear how exactly omicron would affect the effectiveness of vaccines, but it's not like existing vaccines would be completely useless or provide significantly less protection" against the new variant, Jung said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Seoul, South Korea, Covid-19 Testing
Health officials said South Korean's in their 60's and older make up 42 percent of the virus patients that were deemed in serious or critical condition. A medical staff takes a nasal swab from a visitor as part of a test for the COVID-19 coronavirus at a temporary testing centre in Seoul on December 1 amid growing concerns about the Omicron variant. Jung Yeon-je / AFP/Getty Images

The rapid Delta-driven spread comes amid the emergence of the new Omicron variant, which is seen as potentially more contagious than previous strains of the virus, and has fueled concerns about prolonged pandemic suffering.

Since detecting its first Omicron infections on Wednesday, South Korea has confirmed six cases, all linked to arrivals from Nigeria, prompting the government to tighten its border controls.

The country's first five Omicron cases announced Wednesday were a couple who arrived from Nigeria on November 24, a man who drove them home and two women who also traveled to Nigeria and returned home on November 23.

The KDCA confirmed the couple's teenage child as the country's sixth case Thursday night.

Health workers are conducting genetic sequencing tests on at least three other people who are suspected of Omicron infection, including relatives of the friend who drove them home.

Health workers are also monitoring hundreds of people who arrived on the same flights with the Omicron carriers or had close contact with them. Among the nine who were confirmed or suspected of Omicron infection, only the couple who arrived on November 24 was vaccinated, the KDCA said.

The country will require all passengers arriving from abroad over the next two weeks to quarantine for at least 10 days, regardless of their nationality or vaccination status. South Korea since Sunday had already banned short-term foreign travelers arriving from eight southern African nations, including South Africa, and has now extended the same rules to foreigners coming from Nigeria.

Jung said the government plans to conduct Omicron testing on all international passengers who test positive for the coronavirus and will work with biotech companies to develop new tests that could detect the variant faster.

Anyone who comes in close contact with a person infected with Omicron will be required to quarantine for a minimum of two weeks, even if they are fully vaccinated, she said in a briefing.

While the alarm over Omicron has forced governments around the world to tighten border controls, scientists said it is not yet clear whether the variant is more contagious or dangerous than previous strains of the virus, including Delta, which has devastated South Korea in recent weeks.

Health experts have called for the government to reimpose strict social distancing rules that were eased in November to improve the economy, raising concerns that hospital systems could become overwhelmed.

While the government previously resisted calls to reinforce strict virus restrictions, citing public fatigue and the impact on livelihoods, there is the expectation that officials could announce stronger social distancing rules as early as Friday, which could include limits on private social gatherings and indoor dining hours.

Jung pleaded for people to cancel all unnecessary social gatherings and for senior citizens to get booster shots as early as possible.

"A quick rise in immunity provided by a third shot would be beneficial in responding to the omicron variant," Jung said.

South Korea, Police, Covid-19
South Korea broke its daily record for coronavirus infections for a second straight day on Thursday with more than 5,200 new cases, as pressure mounted on a health care system grappling with rising hospitalizations and deaths. Police officers wearing face masks to help protect against the spread of the coronavirus carry barricades in Seoul, South Korea on December 2. Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo