The East Asian nation reported a record of more than 600,000 coronavirus cases on Thursday, with authorities saying the country was near the peak of an Omicron-fuelled infection wave.
South Korea has logged a record 621,328 new daily Covid-19 cases and a daily record 429 deaths as the country which once took an aggressive anti-pandemic approach is set to end Covid restrictions.
Despite the numbers on Thursday, the government shows no sign of rethinking plans to remove almost all social distancing restrictions.
The country has pushed back a curfew on eateries to 11pm, stopped enforcing vaccine passes, and plans to drop a quarantine for vaccinated travellers arriving from overseas.
A decision on whether to ease further measures, such as a current six-person limit on private gatherings, is expected as early as Friday. South Korea also mandates masks in all public indoor and outdoor spaces.
Public opinion appears to support those moves. While a public survey by Seoul National University's graduate school of public health revealed many expected to catch the virus, few feared serious health consequences.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said the highly infectious Omicron variant was driving the record wave of infections.
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Stronger than expected
Daily infections are far higher than health authorities had predicted. On Wednesday the government said it expected the wave to top out with daily cases in the mid-400,000.
Less than a month ago it had predicted the peak of the wave would come in mid-March at 140,000-270,000 daily cases.
Moreover, KDCA official Lee Sang-won said some 70,000 cases and 200 deaths were missing in tallies over the past couple of days, apologising for errors in its compiling procedures.
But he said the current wave has been stronger than expected and could continue to beat its predictions.
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'Last major crisis'
Though it never adopted a "zero Covid" policy and never imposed wide lockdowns, South Korea once used aggressive tracking, tracing, and quarantines to control new cases. That has been largely ended or scaled back.
South Korea has avoided the crisis unfolding in places like Hong Kong, limiting deaths and serious cases largely through widespread vaccination, with 86.6 percent of the population fully vaccinated, experts have said.
A government analysis of some 141,000 Omicron cases reported in the country over the past year showed that there were no deaths among people under 60 who had received a booster shot, Son Young-rae, a health ministry official, said on Wednesday.
"We see this could be the last major crisis in our Covid responses, and if we overcome this crisis, it would bring us nearer to normal lives," Son told a briefing, adding that Covid could be treated like the seasonal flu.
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