South Korea's new COVID-19 cases rose to over 20,000 on Wednesday as the government eased indoor mask-wearing restrictions in an effort to fully restore pre-pandemic normalcy amid a recent overall downward trend.
The country reported 20,420 new cases, including 28 from overseas, bringing the total caseload to 30,197,066, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
The daily count rose from about a seven-month low of 7,416 on Monday to 19,629 on Tuesday. Wednesday's figure was also slightly higher than the previous week's 19,527 cases.
The country added 42 COVID-19 deaths, bringing the death toll to 33,486. The number of critically ill patients came to 359, down from 387 the previous day, the KDCA said.
The country, however, has seen a gradual decline in new infections in recent weeks, and it lifted the indoor mask mandate Monday after it had been in place for more than two years, excluding at hospitals, pharmacies and public transportation.
But the government decided to maintain a seven-day mandatory quarantine for those infected with the virus and has implemented several other restrictive measures, including curbs on entrants from China.
South Korea halted the issuance of short-term visas from diplomatic missions in China and requires those entering the country to undergo a coronavirus test before and after arriving here, which will be in effect until the end of this month.
"The lifting of the indoor mask mandate is a crucial step toward regaining normalcy. But COVID-19 still poses a danger just as the World Health Organization sees it as a global public health emergency," senior interior ministry official Kim Sung-ho said during a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.
"The government will closely monitor the possibility of a virus resurgence in line with a virus inflow from China and the mask mandate adjustment, and strive to manage the virus situation," he added.
The full removal of the mask restrictions could be possible around May, and a full shift to a pre-pandemic medical system would be desirable around October and November, according to Jung Ki-suck, chair of the government advisory committee for COVID-19. (Yonhap)