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(LEAD) New infections hit record 18,343 amid omicron woes

(ATTENTION: UPDATES with details in the last 9 paragraphs)

SEOUL, Feb. 1 (Yonhap) — Daily COVID-19 cases in South Korea topped 18,000 for the first time Tuesday since the first local case emerged two years ago, due to the spread of the omicron variant during the Lunar New Year holiday.

The country reported 18,343 new COVID-19 infections, including 18,123 local cases, bringing the total to 864,042, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

Daily infections rose after reporting more than 17,000 cases for the past three days through Monday.

The death toll from COVID-19 reached 6,772, 17 more than on Sunday. The mortality rate was 0.78 percent.

The number of critically ill COVID-19 patients was 272, five fewer than the day before.

A revised virus response system came into force on Saturday to deal with the wave of omicron, which has become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the country.

Eighty percent of the confirmed cases in the country during the last week were omicron. Health authorities are on high alert as it appears to be a matter of time before daily cases exceed 20,000 due to increased family gatherings during the holidays.

Some 250 testing stations installed in public health centers and large hospitals will adopt rapid antigen self-tests and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. People can choose which one they want to take, the KDCA said.

People over the age of 60 or in high-risk groups, such as those with underlying diseases, will be prioritized for PCR testing.

Starting Thursday, local hospitals and clinics will also administer self-test kits.

The revised regimen is designed to minimize critical cases and deaths, while preventing overburdening and collapse of the medical system, the health agency said.

The system will expand to the entire country after the three-day Lunar New Year holiday that will last until Wednesday.

Of the locally transmitted cases on Tuesday, the Gyeonggi province surrounding Seoul reported 5,509, followed by Seoul with 4,103 and the western port city of Incheon with 1,366. Cases from abroad increased from 220 to 25,516.

As of Tuesday, 27.25 million people, or 53.1 percent of the country’s 52 million population, had received booster shots, the KDCA said. The number of fully vaccinated people reached 44 million people, accounting for 86 percent.

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