(ATTN: UPDATES with latest figures in paras 7-8)
SEOUL, Jan. 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily coronavirus cases fell below 4,000 for the first time in a week Monday, but health authorities remained vigilant over a possible resurgence due to the fast spread of the omicron variant amid partially eased antivirus curbs.
The country added 3,859 new COVID-19 infections, including 3,551 local infections, raising the total caseload to 696,032, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The figure marked a fall from 4,193 new cases logged in the previous day, when the daily tally stayed above the 4,000 level for the fifth straight day.
The number of critically ill COVID-19 patients stood at 579, falling below 600 for the first time in more than 50 days, the KDCA said.
The country reported 23 more COVID-19 deaths, raising the death toll to 6,333. The fatality rate came to 0.91 percent.
The number of imported cases was tallied at 308, compared with a daily high of 406 reported Friday, according to the authorities.
As of 9 p.m., the country had added 3,334 new COVID-19 cases, down 10 from the same time the previous day, according to health authorities and city governments. Daily cases are counted until midnight and announced the following morning.
New infections are expected to be around 4,000 on Tuesday.
On Monday, the government announced its decision to lift the vaccine pass program at six kinds of multiuse facilities, including department stores, large discount stores, museums, libraries, cinemas and cram schools, across the country.
The measure, set to be implemented starting on Tuesday, came three days after a Seoul court suspended the enforcement of the vaccine pass program at department and discount stores, as well as planned vaccine pass requirements for those aged 12-18 at all facilities, following a suit claiming the program discriminates against unvaccinated people.
The program requires people to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results when entering multiuse facilities. It has been in effect in phases since November when the number of daily infections soared to nearly 8,000 cases.
"The number of daily infections has been reduced compared with December, and we now have a greater medical capacity. We will lift the vaccine pass program at facilities in which citizens can wear masks at all times, and they do activities without spraying much saliva," Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said.
The vaccine pass scheme, however, will remain effective at cafes, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, indoor gyms and sports arenas, karaoke establishments, PC rooms and public bathhouses, the KDCA said.
The government also vowed to continue pushing for its implementation for minors aged 12-18 starting in March as planned, given that this age group has accounted for more than 25 percent of the country's total infections.
"We've decided to apply the vaccine pass only to high-risk facilities which are not directly linked to minors' study and education, so we expect the court to reverse its ruling on the matter," the KDCA said in a release. "This adjustment is a temporary one, and the system is subject to change according to the virus situation."
On Monday, the government also raised the limit on the size of private gatherings to six from the previous four.
Still, it has extended a 9 p.m. curfew on restaurants and cafes, which has been in place since mid-December, for another three weeks until Feb. 6.
The move came amid deepening worries over a drastic upsurge in infections, as the highly transmissible omicron variant has spread at a fast pace and many people are expected to travel during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.
Omicron cases accounted for 26.7 percent of the domestic virus cases reported last week, more than doubling in a week, the KDCA said, adding that cases of the variant took up a whopping 94.7 percent of all imported cases last week.
South Korea has so far confirmed 5,030 omicron variant infections, including 2,391 locally transmitted cases, the KDCA said, adding that the country has reported six omicron related deaths.
"Omicron is expected to be the dominant COVID-19 variant in our nation around this weekend," Kwon said.
"If we fail to properly respond to the situation, it could paralyze our medical system and create serious social problems," the minister said, calling on the people to fully adhere to quarantine rules and receive booster shots.
As of Monday, 43.51 million people, or 84.8 percent of the country's 52 million population, have been fully vaccinated, and 23.35 million, or 45.5 percent, have received booster shots, the health authorities said.
The health authorities put the risk level of the pandemic in the country over the past week at the "medium" level both for metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, noting that infections in non-capital regions have grown recently.
Of the locally transmitted cases reported Monday, 711 were from Seoul, 1,351 from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and 187 from the western port city of Incheon.
Since the government began administrating Pfizer Inc.'s Paxlovid antiviral COVID-19 treatment pills Friday, 39 patients have taken them and their conditions have improved, according to the KDCA.
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