(ATTN: UPDATES with planned lifting of entry ban on foreigners from 11 African countries in paras 17-18)
SEOUL, Jan. 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily COVID-19 cases reached yet another record high Friday, as the country grapples with the rapid spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant with a new nationwide virus response system set to come into force.
The country reported 16,096 new COVID-19 infections, including 15,894 local cases, raising the total to 793,582, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
The daily count broke the record for the fourth consecutive day, spiking from 8,570 on Tuesday. The per day figures have more than quadrupled since Jan. 17, when the tally hovered around 3,800.
The death toll from COVID-19 came to 6,678, up 24 from Thursday. The fatality rate stood at 0.84 percent.
The number of critically ill COVID-19 patients was 316, down 34 from the previous day.
The public health agency said the infection tally could surge to as many as 100,000 a day in the next several weeks.
South Korea is set to introduce a revised virus response system Saturday to tackle the omicron wave.
Testing stations set up at public health centers and large hospitals will adopt both rapid antigen self-tests and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. People can choose which one they want to take.
People aged over 60 or in high-risk groups, such as those with underlying illnesses, will be prioritized for PCR tests.
Beginning Thursday next week, local hospitals and clinics will also administer self-test kits, prescribe medication, such as Paxlovid pills, and manage patients undergoing at-home treatment.
"We'll ultimately change the medical system to respond to COVID-19 within the everyday medical system rather than a separate, specialized medical system," Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said in a regular briefing on virus response.
"This is an inevitable transition to reduce severe cases and deaths by focusing on the swift diagnosis and treatment of high-risk groups with the limited resources available," Kwon said.
The government is in talks with the medical community to encourage as many as 1,000 local clinics to participate in the testing and treatment.
The system will expand nationwide after the three-day Lunar New Year holiday running till Wednesday.
Of the locally transmitted cases Friday, Gyeonggi Province that surrounds Seoul reported 5,143 new COVID-19 cases, followed by Seoul with 3,946 and the western port city of Incheon at 1,228.
The number of imported cases was tallied at 202, bringing the total to 24,649.
Beginning next Friday, South Korea will reduce the quarantine period for all international arrivals to seven days from the current 10 and lift the entry ban imposed on short-term travelers from South Africa, Ethiopia and nine other African countries, given that omicron has become a dominant variant in South Korea, according to the KDCA.
As of Friday, 26.35 million people, or 51.4 percent of the country's 52 million population, had received booster shots, the KDCA said. The number of fully vaccinated people came to 43.93 million people, accounting for 85.6 percent.
From the second week of next month, South Korea will adopt the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine, health authorities said. It will primarily be administered to unvaccinated hospitalized patients, the elderly and those with disabilities.
The authorities will also start home visits to encourage vaccination among high-risk groups and allow mix-and-match vaccination with Novavax for booster shots.
South Korea has so far adopted AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Janssen and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
As of Thursday, 506 COVID-19 patients had been prescribed Paxlovid antiviral treatment pills, health officials said.
The first batch of Paxlovid, enough to be administered to 21,000 people, was delivered on Jan. 13. The second delivery for 11,000 people is due to arrive in the country on Sunday.
Seoul has so far secured Paxlovid pills for 762,000 people and MSD's Molnupiravir for 242,000 people.
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