Residents of South Seoul’s Songpa District line up outside at a local Covid-19 testing center on Sunday, which was the coldest day of this winter season so far, with high temperatures. in the morning falling to minus 16 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit). [YONHAP]

The number of critically ill Covid-19 patients remained above 1,000 for a sixth day, leaving the country dangerously short of beds for the most severe cases, as people with minor infections were urged to stay away. hospital gap.

Korea registered 1,081 Covid-19 patients in critical condition at midnight on Saturday, which was the sixth day in a row that the number has remained above 1,000. The first time the number exceeded 1,000 was on December 17 at midnight, when it reached 1,016.

As of 5 p.m. on Saturday, 77.7 percent of the country’s intensive care unit (ICU) beds were occupied, according to the health ministry. The level was 82.5% in the greater Seoul area, which includes Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon.

In greater Seoul, 150 intensive care beds were available, while in the rest of the country the figure was 152.

All intensive care beds were occupied in Sejong and north of Gyeongsang. There was only one ICU bed available in Ulsan, three in the North Chungcheong area and five in Daejeon as of 5 p.m. Saturday.

The government has asked people with mild cases to be treated at home. They regularly monitor and report their condition to the healthcare professionals assigned to their case. Saturday midnight, patients in this category numbered 31,686.

If the home-treated patient lives with other people, they should self-quarantine for up to seven days and undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on the sixth or seventh day.

If they are negative, they are allowed to return to work or school. They must undergo a second test on the 13th or 14th day to confirm their virus-free status.

Korea is still in its fourth and biggest wave of Covid-19.

The country added a total of 5,419 cases as of midnight on Saturday, 80 of which were imported, bringing the total number of infections since the start of the pandemic to 607,463, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency ( KDCA).

Of the new cases, 33 were Omicron infections, bringing the total number of Omicron cases to 376. Of the new cases, 23 were imported – 15 from the United States, two from Britain and one from the Maldives, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Canada, France and the Philippines.

A total of 69 people died from Friday to Saturday, bringing the total number of Covid-19 deaths to 5,245, for a death rate of 0.86%.

From November 1, Korea relaxed its social distancing measures, such as restrictions on the number of people allowed to assemble and business hours, after 70 percent of the population was fully immunized. As part of the ‘Living with Covid’ program, restrictions have been relaxed and passes for certain facilities, such as clubs, bars and indoor gymnasiums, have been introduced.

When the daily number of Covid-19 cases, which stood at around 1,500 from July to mid-September, reached over 5,000 by the end of November, the country reintroduced some of the distancing guidelines and from from mid-December required the use of the vaccine to pass in more facilities, including restaurants, cafes, PC shot (Internet cafes), noraebang (singing rooms), in addition to indoor gymnasiums, bars and clubs already covered.

Up to four vaccinated people can use these facilities together, and unvaccinated people are only allowed if they are using the facilities alone. Restaurants and cafes can operate until 9 p.m. Other businesses considered low risk, such as movie theaters, may remain open until 10 p.m.

These measures will be in place until January 2. Health officials will review the situation next week and decide whether or not to extend the measures.

Earlier on Friday, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Korea was in the “final stages” of signing a deal with Pfizer of New York to purchase its antiviral pills to treat Covid-19.

Kim said in a coronviarus response meeting that the Korean government has negotiated with Pfizer to purchase more than 300,000 doses of the Paxlovid Covid-19 antiviral pill, more than the previously disclosed 70,000 doses.

Kim said the government would announce the details once the contract was confirmed and the Korea Medicines Safety Agency would grant emergency approval for the drug’s use. Emergency approval could arrive as early as this week.

Health officials also announced Friday that a Korean-made PCR test capable of detecting the Omicron variant in four hours will be available from December 30.

The KDCA said the new PCR tests were developed through public-private cooperation and will be distributed nationwide to local governments by December 29 for use from the next day.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]