South Korea reported nearly 40,000 new COVID-19 cases Saturday, marking a gradual decrease in infections, amid eased social distancing rules designed to return the country to normalcy.
The country added 39,600 new COVID-19 infections, including 26 cases from overseas, bringing the total caseload to 17,504,334, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Saturday's figure is up from the previous day's 26,714, but it marked a 13-week low for Saturdays.
As of 9 p.m. on Saturday, the country had reported 38,735 new cases, up 402 from the same time the previous day, according to health authorities and local governments. Daily virus cases are counted until midnight and announced the following morning.
Daily infections have been on the downward trend in recent weeks after soaring to over 620,000 in mid-March due to the fast spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant. The figure fell to nearly a three-month low of 20,076 on Monday.
The country added 83 COVID-19 deaths Saturday, bringing the total to 23,289, the KDCA said. The fatality rate stood at 0.13 percent.
The number of critically ill patients came to 419, slightly down from 423 a day earlier. The figure has fallen in recent weeks, staying below 500 for eight days in a row.
According to the KDCA, 20.6 percent of hospital beds reserved for seriously ill COVID-19 patients were occupied Saturday, slightly down from the previous day's 21.5 percent, and the number of at-home patients also fell 5,177 to 244,487.
As of Saturday, 44.55 million people, or 86.8 percent of the population, had been vaccinated with the first two shots, and 33.17 million people had received the first booster shots, representing 64.6 percent.
The number of those that got second booster shots came to 2.83 million, which accounted for 5.5 percent of the country's total population, the KDCA said.
In line with the recent gradual decrease in infections, the government has removed almost all strict antivirus rules to support the people's return to normalcy.
Effective Monday, the government lifted the outdoor mask mandate after more than 18 months of enforcement, except for large gatherings of 50 or more.
Last month, the government also fully lifted private gathering limits and business hour curfews.
But mask wearing is still recommended when it is difficult for people to keep a 1-meter distance from each other at gatherings and in circumstances where lots of droplets of saliva could be expelled, such as shouting and singing.
The government has also made it clear that indoor mask wearing needs to be in place for some time.
The health authorities said the downturn in infections is expected to continue at least for the month to come, but they remained vigilant over a possible uptick due to the emergence of new variants and seasonal factors.
Earlier this week, the authorities confirmed the country's first case of the even more contagious omicron subvariant dubbed BA.2.12.1.
In accordance with changing circumstances, the government has been working to adjust the country's medical response system with a greater focus on virus-vulnerable groups and seriously ill patients.
Source: Yonhap News Agency