South Korean health authorities will decide on Friday whether to lift the indoor mask mandate as early as the end of this month.
On Tuesday, health experts on the government advisory committee for COVID-19 held a video conference to discuss ending indoor mask requirements.
As they agreed to phase out the indoor mask requirement, some experts also reportedly suggested lifting the mandate as early as Jan. 30, the first Monday after the Lunar New Year holiday.
“The latest winter resurgence of the pandemic has passed its peak, and the overall quarantine situation is starting to stabilize,” said Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min during the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters meeting Wednesday.
The minister also noted the country’s new COVID-19 infections are on the decrease, with the average daily new virus cases reaching 42,938 last week, showing a steady downward trend for the third consecutive week. The number of critically ill patients reached 439 on average last week, which is the lowest point in five weeks.
As of Wednesday, 36,908 new cases were reported, including 80 from overseas, reaching a total of 29,898,142, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
This is 3,000 less from Tuesday’s infections and nearly 17,500 from the previous week, the KDCA added. The daily tally is also the lowest Wednesday tally since Oct. 19, when 29,492 cases were reported.
Considering the country’s virus situation and other external elements, Lee added the government would decide on the exact agenda and to what extent it will modify the indoor mask policy during the next meeting slated for Friday.
However, Lee expressed concerns over Lunar New Year holiday travel, Jan. 21 to Jan. 24, as people gather with family members and urged unvaccinated people over age 60 to get inoculated.
Last month the government said it could take steps to drop the mandate in phases if at least two of four criteria were met: When the virus situation shows a declining number of infections over a two-week period, critically ill cases and fatality rates as well as sufficient capacity of ICU beds to treat critically ill patients and booster inoculates rates of at least 50 percent among the elderly and 60 percent of those in high-risk facilities.
Jung Ki-seok, the head of the COVID-19 Special Response Team, said during the Tuesday meeting that three categories among the criteria had been met, including the decrease in the number of severe cases and deaths, which can be used as a reference when adjusting the mask mandate.
The indoor mask mandate is the last remaining sanitary measure implemented in Korea to help curb the spread of the virus.