More than 10 million people in South Korea have contracted coronavirus as a surge in the highly infectious variant of Omicron caused a record wave of infections, officials said.
The death toll has nearly doubled since early February, leaving funeral directors and crematoriums struggling to cope.
The Korea Disease Control Agency (KDCA) reported 490,881 cases for Tuesday, the second-highest daily tally after peaking at 621,205 on March 16.
A total of 291 people have been reported dead after contracting disease over the past 24 hours, after daily deaths peaked at 429 last Friday.
At least 13,432 people have died since the start of the pandemic, out of a total of 10,427,247 cases, the KDCA said.
Almost a fifth of the country’s population of 52 million has now had or is battling the disease, according to the latest figures.
South Korea responded to the initial outbreak with a strict tracing and quarantine regime, but with 87% of its population fully vaccinated they were abandoned by Seoul, along with social distancing measures.
Booster shots have been given to 63% of the country.
Ministers have told the country’s 60 crematoriums to open longer and burn seven bodies a day, up from five previously.
The 1,136 funeral homes, which can hold around 8,700 bodies, have been instructed to expand their facilities.
Son Young-rae, a health ministry official, said, “The capacity of crematoria is increasing, but there are still regional differences.”
The number of bodies that can be disposed of daily was increased to 1,400 from 1,000 last week, but there is a big backlog and in the densely populated greater Seoul area, long waits are common, Son said.
The percentage of occupied intensive care beds rose to around 64% on Wednesday, from 59% two weeks earlier.
Merck & Co’s COVID-19 treatment pill, Lagevrio, has received emergency approval from South Korea’s drug safety agency, as authorities move to tackle the outbreak.
The highly effective Paxlovid from Pfizer is already in use.
Health Ministry official Park Hyang said on Wednesday, “The medical system is under significant pressure, although it is still operating within a manageable range.
“We would focus more on high-risk groups in the future and carry out constant checks to make sure there are no blind spots.”