N.Korea reports 21 deaths amid outbreak

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North Korea has reported 21 new deaths and 174,440 more people with fever symptoms as the country scrambles to slow the spread of COVID-19 across its unvaccinated population.

The new deaths and cases, which were from Friday, increased total numbers to 27 deaths and 524,440 illnesses amid a rapid spread of fever since late April.

North Korea on Saturday said 243,630 people had recovered and 280,810 remained in quarantine. State media did not specify how many of the fever cases and deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 infections.

The country imposed nationwide lockdowns on Thursday after confirming its first COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

It had previously held for more than two years to a widely doubted claim of a perfect record keeping out the virus that has spread to nearly every place in the world.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a meeting on anti-virus strategies on Saturday described the outbreak as a historically "huge disruption" and called for unity between the government and people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.

Kim expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying most transmissions are occurring within communities that were isolated from one another and not spreading from region to region.

The country since Thursday has imposed stronger preventive measures aimed at restricting the movement of people and supplies between cities and counties, but state media's descriptions of the steps indicate people are not being confined to their homes.

Experts say a failure to control the spread of COVID-19 could have devastating consequences in North Korea, considering the country's poor health system and that its 26 million people are largely unvaccinated.

Tests of virus samples collected Sunday from an unspecified number of people with fevers in the country's capital, Pyongyang, confirmed they were infected with the Omicron variant, state media said.

The country has officially confirmed one death as linked to an Omicron infection.

Lacking vaccines, antiviral pills, intensive care units and other major health tools to fight the virus, North Korea's pandemic response will be mostly about isolating people with symptoms at designated shelters, Sexperts say.

Even as he called for stronger preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kim has also stressed the country's economic goals should be met, which likely means huge groups will continue to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

The country had shunned millions of doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because of concerns over international monitoring requirements attached to those shots.

South Korea's new conservative government led by President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office on Tuesday, has offered to send vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea on humanitarian grounds, but Seoul officials say the North has made no request for help.

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