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A medical worker takes a swab for a Covid-19 test at a temporary testing station in Seoul on December 16. Jung Yeon-je / AFP / Getty Images

South Korean health officials have warned residents to take the current restrictions seriously as the country faces its first potential lockdown since the pandemic began.

South Korea has long been considered a model country for its effective Covid-19 response. Although it was among the first countries to be hit by the virus, it has managed to avoid the strict lockdown measures seen elsewhere in the world, largely thanks to a combination of aggressive testing and sophisticated track and trace techniques.

But as the pandemic drifts into winter, the appearance of a so-called “third wave” has led to an apparently incomprehensible increase in new infections.

Ascending cases: On Tuesday, South Korea reported 1,078 new cases – the country’s highest daily number to date – bringing the national total to 45,442, according to the Ministry of Health. The majority of the cases were transmitted locally.

About 226 patients are in critical condition, while there were an additional 12 deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total death toll to 612.

On Wednesday senior health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho urged people to take social distancing measures in the Seoul metropolitan area, which accounts for roughly half of the country’s 51 million residents.

Officials are currently debating whether to raise the restrictions to a higher alert level. Many fear that this could harm small businesses and the self-employed.

Last intensive care bed: Seoul only has one single intensive care bed for Covid-19 in the city, the acting mayor said on Wednesday.

About 77 of the 78 beds are occupied by coronavirus patients. And 85.7% of all dedicated beds in hospitals are occupied, adding an extra burden to health systems that are already having problems.

The city will secure 18 additional beds in the intensive care unit by the end of the year, the authorities said.

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South Korea warns of a possible lockdown as coronavirus numbers rise

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