SEOUL - South Korea's daily count of new coronavirus cases topped 8,000 for the first time on Tuesday, as the highly contagious Omicron variant spreads rapidly despite the recent extension of strict social-distancing rules to slow infection.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 8,571 cases for Monday, exceeding the previous peak posted in mid-December of 7,848.
The new record came amid the spread of the more transmissible but less deadly Omicron variant, which became dominant in the country last week, and despite less testing over the weekend.
South Korea reinstated tougher distancing curbs in December as record-breaking numbers of daily cases and critically ill patients threatened to saturate its medical system before the Omicron wave hit.
Daily tallies had almost halved to around 4,000 this month but began rebounding last week because of Omicron infections, logging their second-highest level on Saturday.
The surge fuelled worries about a potentially bigger wave ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays, when tens of millions of Koreans usually travel across the country for family visits.
Health officials said Omicron would likely account for more than 90% of new infections within two to three weeks, while daily numbers could reach 20,000 to 30,000 or even higher.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum issued a special statement on Monday to plead for people to refrain from travel and gatherings during the break, which starts on Saturday.
"It is no different to adding fuel to the raging flames if many people move around the country and meet each other," he told a briefing.
As part of efforts to reserve medical capacity for the critically ill, the mandatory isolation period for vaccinated patients will be reduced from the current 10 days to seven starting on Wednesday.
South Korea has also rolled out one of the region's most stringent vaccine pass mandates, under which unvaccinated people can only dine out alone, or use takeout or delivery services.
The extended curbs triggered a backlash from small business owners, while a court ordered large stores and teenagers to be temporarily exempted from the vaccine mandates in the capital Seoul in an intensifying legal battle between the government and citizens.
Some 300 members of a coalition of small business owners plan to hold a hair-shaving protest on Tuesday, urging the government to lift the curbs, including a 9 p.m. dining curfew, and compensate their economic losses.
South Korea has recorded 733,902 COVID-19 infections and 6,540 deaths, KDCA data showed. The country of 52 million has largely been a COVID-19 mitigation success story, with 749,979 total infections and 6,588 deaths.
More than 95% of South Korean adults have been fully vaccinated and nearly 58% have received a booster shot, KDCA data showed.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Gerry Doyle and Richard Pullin) ((firstname.lastname@example.org;))