South Korea posts virus death record

People wait for their coronavirus test at a makeshift testing site Saturday in Seoul, South Korea. (AP/Yonhap/Ryu Hyung-seok)

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea on Saturday reported its deadliest day of the pandemic, with 112 fatalities in a 24-hour period as it grapples with a wave of coronavirus infections driven by the omicron variant.

Health workers diagnosed 166,209 new cases, which came close to Wednesday's single-day record of 171,451 and represented a more than a 37-fold increase from daily levels in mid-January, when omicron first emerged as the country's dominant strain of the virus.

Omicron has so far been less likely to cause serious illness or death than the delta strain that hit the country hard in December and early January. But hospitalizations and deaths are beginning to creep up amid an outbreak that is putting added pressure on worn-out health and public workers.

More than 640 virus patients were in serious or critical condition, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said, compared with 200 to 300 in mid-February. The Health Ministry said about 44% of the country's intensive care units designated for covid-19 patients are occupied.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Friday that health authorities anticipate the omicron wave will peak sometime in mid-March, when the country may see daily cases of about 250,000. There are concerns that transmission of the virus could worsen with schools beginning new semesters in March and with political rallies behind scheduled ahead of the March 9 presidential election.

More than 86% of the country's population of more than 51 million has been fully vaccinated, and about 60% has received a booster dose. The country has been rolling out fourth shots to people at nursing homes and long-term care settings to protect them from the omicron surge.

Officials on Wednesday approved Pfizer's covid-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, and they plan to announce the rollout for that age group in March.

  photo  Patients wait at a temporary treatment area Saturday outside Caritas Medical Center in Hong Kong, where the omicron variant has been spreading rapidly. South Korea is experiencing a similar surge. (AP/Kin Cheung)