(ATTN: ADDS more data, gov't responses, comments in paras 4-6, 11-15, additional photo)
SEOUL, Aug. 19 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new COVID-19 cases fell below 140,000 on Friday, but daily deaths reached more than a three-month high amid the continued virus wave driven by a highly contagious omicron subvariant.
The country added 138,812 new COVID-19 infections, including 465 cases from overseas, bringing the total caseload to 22,000,037, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
It marked a decline from the previous day's 178,574 new cases but was still about 10 percent larger than a week earlier when 128,675 infections were reported.
The country reported 83 COVID-19 deaths Friday, the highest level since April 29 when 136 deaths were tallied. On May 7, the country saw the same number of virus-caused deaths as that logged Friday.
The death toll came to 25,896, and the fatality rate stood at 0.12 percent, the KDCA said.
"The death toll is expected to continue to rise. The government will strive further to protect high-risk groups," health ministry official Sohn Young-rae said.
The number of critically ill patients came to 492, up from 472 a day earlier, it added.
South Korea has seen another virus wave since July, driven by the omicron subvariant BA.5 and the government's lifting of virus curbs.
The KDCA has said that new infections are expected to peak at around 200,000 this month before shrinking at a slower pace, vowing to devise a medical response system that can handle about 300,000 daily infections.
"The virus spread has been unabated amid the growth in travel in summer," Second Vice Health Minister Lee Ki-il said. "We will not be swayed by the changing daily virus trend. We will be fully prepared to prevent deaths and serious cases."
As of Thursday, the government designated more than 10,000 "one-stop" COVID-19 treatment centers across the country, where people can take virus tests and get in-person medical care services and antiviral drugs.
It currently holds COVID-19 treatment pills for 630,000 patients, the KDCA said.
The government also decided to enhance monitoring of elderly patients who live alone and other vulnerable groups, and to extend administrative support for their swift treatment.
Despite the new virus wave, the government made it clear that it will not reinstate previously enforced strict antivirus restrictions to support people's everyday lives, as it is capable of dealing with the situation under the current medical response system.
"Eradicating COVID-19 is now impossible. We should take it as a kind of a bit strong seasonal influenza or a year-round infectious disease," said Jung Ki-suck, head of the National Infectious Diseases Consulting Committee.