S.Korea logs 68,168 new Covid cases; govt unveils plans to lift mask rules

South Korea reported fresh 68,168 Covid infections on Friday, including 95 from overseas, bringing the total caseload to 28,534,558.

Friday’s count is up by about 1,200 from a week ago. The daily infection numbers have been on a steady rebound for the past several weeks amid a winter wave, Yonhap News Agency reported quoting the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

Despite the virus spread, the government announced plans to scrap the indoor mask mandate in phases and a set of criteria that need to be met to implement the mask-free policy.

A stable number of new infections, a downtrend in critically ill cases and deaths, medical response capabilities and vaccination rate among the high-risk groups will be among the criteria, and at least two of the four criteria will be needed to carry out the easing of the mandate, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said at a government response meeting.

Exceptions will apply in the first phase, however, to crowded establishments like hospitals, community centers and nursing homes.

The mask rule can be completely lifted in the second phase, if the national Covid crisis level is downgraded to “caution,” from “grave,” currently in place, or the official infectious disease rating for COVID-19 is revised down to Level 4 from the current Level 2.

The seven-day mandatory isolation will remain in place.

Friday’s announcement did not include a timeline as to when the mask rule will actually be lifted. Health authorities stressed that the virus situation needs to improve first for the phase-out plans to be carried out.

The current virus situation falls short of the four criteria, as the per-day infection tallies and severe cases continue to rise, the KDCA said.

“Given that we’ll need about two weeks for the post-peak evaluation, we could expect the time for the mask easing will be around the Lunar New Year or late January, but it’s difficult to say for sure,” Jee Young-mee, the KDCA commissioner, said in a briefing.

Mask wearing will remain a recommendation, Jee said, calling on the public to continue to stay wary of the infection risks and take precautionary measures.

The indoor mask mandate was the last remaining Covid restriction in South Korea. The country lifted the tough social distancing, such as business hour curfews and private gathering limits, in April this year in steps toward a return to normalcy.

There had been constant calls for removal of the mask mandate but authorities remained cautious over lifting the restriction too soon, citing the persistent virus wave and risks of a simultaneous outbreak of Covid and the seasonal flu.

On Friday, the death toll rose by 63 to 31,674. The fatality rate stood at 0.11 per cent.

The number of critically ill patients was 530, down 17 from the previous day.

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