April 7, 2022
SEOUL – South Korean government says the omicron wave is in retreat here, and that a return to normal life is on the horizon.
“The weekly average deaths are falling, and this declining trend is expected to continue,” Ministry of Health and Welfare spokesperson Son Young-rae said at a briefing Wednesday.
He said the number of patients in critical care have also fallen from a peak in late March, with 60 percent of beds at ICUs hospitals across the country filled. The ICU occupancy rates hovered 70 and 90 percent in the past month.
“With omicron in retreat, social distancing could be further eased,” he said.
The ministry on Wednesday reported 371 people with COVID-19 died in the 24 hours, 91 percent of whom were in their 60s or older. The seven-day average number of new deaths was 311 as of Tuesday, down from 346 the week prior.
According to the ministry, out of all deaths aged 12 and above confirmed between Jan. 30 and March 26, around 42 percent were in people who were unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated, meaning they had only received the first of two-dose vaccine series. As of Wednesday midnight, 94 percent of Koreans 12 years of age and older have been fully vaccinated.
The strain on crematoriums, morgues and funeral services from the rise in deaths has eased over the last four weeks, the ministry said. As a result of the ministry order for extra shifts, nationwide capacity has increased to be able to run 1,764 cremations per day as of Monday, up from 1,044 a month ago.
On this day the ministry announced patients can break isolation for in-person medical services, in a series of efforts to “bring health care system back to non-crisis mode.” Self-isolating patients can see doctors and visit pharmacies in person. Last month, the ministry said isolation care was no longer necessary for patients with active cases at hospitals.
Monday marked the beginning of what may be the final two weeks of social distancing. Currently no more than 10 people can gather at a time, and restaurants and other high-risk places cannot stay open past midnight.
At the end of the two-week period on April 17, social distancing will likely be no more, said Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who heads the government’s COVID-19 response headquarters. “The peak of the omicron wave is now past, 11 weeks since the new variant became dominant here,” he said during a meeting last week.
The omicron wave has been cited as Korea’s way out of the pandemic and toward an endemic phase.
President Moon Jae-in told a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, “Hopes are high that Korea can embark on a return to normalcy as the omicron wave is ending.”
He went on, “All eyes are on Korea on the international stage, as we are believed to lead the world in turning COVID-19 into an endemic level of a disease. Our strategy of returning to normal life is being closely watched.”
The president lauded Korea’s response to the omicron wave as having “successfully protecting people from the disease.” “As omicron was spreading we were able to keep hospitalization and death rates relatively low compared to other countries,” he said.
The prime minister also said Friday that as omicron dies down, Korea could be the “first country in the world to achieve COVID-19 endemicity.”
The ministry spokesperson explained Wednesday that public health experts did not agree on what was meant by endemic, and that its definition varied.
“But the judgment is that keeping social distancing and causing damage to the public and economy is no longer efficient,” he said. “The current outbreak situation is manageable within the capacities of our hospitals.”
Korea has shed its earlier pandemic control efforts over omicron. In January as delta started to give way, the country made a shift to what has been called an omicron response plan that heralded the end of contact tracing and free testing. Quarantine and isolation requirements were also minimized.
Since Jan. 26 when omicron’s share of new cases crossed 50 percent, Korea has logged more than 13 million cases and 11,445 deaths. The 11,445 deaths counted over the omicron wave make up 64 percent of all 17,662 known COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic.