A sense of crisis is deepening in Korea over a recent spike in COVID-19 infections, with demonstrations of 10 or more people banned in Seoul starting Friday, mask-wearing made mandatory in Incheon and beaches to be closed in Busan.
The Aug. 15 rally held in central Seoul is emerging as a source of a potentially explosive outbreak nationwide, as health authorities struggle to identify and have tested tens of thousands of people who traveled from all over the country to participate in the anti-government rally.
South Korea announced 288 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, mostly in the Seoul metropolitan area, bringing the total caseload to 16,346, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“What we are concerned about most is an increase in cases whose transmission routes are unknown,” said Kwon Jun-wook, the KCDC’s deputy director, at a briefing Thursday. “In the Seoul metropolitan area, we should get ready for a massive wave of infections, and other regions should be mindful of a rise in cases.”
Transmission routes remained unknown for 14.7 percent of new cases reported from Aug. 7 to Aug. 20.
Municipalities are scrambling to contain COVID-19
In Seoul, from Friday through Aug. 30 any rallies with more than 10 people in attendance will be banned and those breaking the rule will face fines of up to 3 million won ($2,500), according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Calling the resurgence of COVID-19 “the biggest crisis” the country is facing, Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung warned that the country is likely to face “an unprecedented, tsunami-level shock” in a statement issued online Thursday.
Urging the country to be on the highest alert, Lee called on the public to avoid unnecessary outdoor activities and contact and to properly wear masks when there is a chance of coming into contact with others.
In Busan, seven large beaches including Haeundae will be closed from Friday just after the stroke of midnight, about 10 days earlier than scheduled, to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Gatherings, rallies and events with more than 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors will also be banned. At-risk facilities such as nightclubs, karaoke rooms and internet cafes, as well as indoor state-run facilities, will also be shut down from Friday. The tightened social distancing guidelines are set to be in place until Aug. 31.
In Incheon, Mayor Park Nam-choon issued an administrative order making it mandatory for residents and visitors in the city to wear a mask starting from 3 p.m. Thursday. Those breaking the rule will face a fine of up to 100,000 won. Among Incheon residents, those who attended the Aug. 15 rally are required to be tested for the coronavirus. Authorities on alert over Aug. 15 rally
Central disease control authorities are focusing their efforts on tracing and testing those who joined the rally by using cellphone location data and acquiring a list of passengers on buses to Seoul from other cities for the Aug. 15 rally.
The vast majority of rally participants are unspecified, but Vice Health and Welfare Minister Kim Gang-lip said nearly 70 percent were in their 60s or over, making them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
At the center of the sprawling outbreak is the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, with many of the church members among those who attended the Aug. 15 rally.
As of noon Wednesday, a total of 53 people tested positive for the virus after attending the rally, according to the vice minister. Of them, 33 cases were members of the Sarang Jeil Church.
As of Thursday morning, about 8,500 people among rally participants had been tested for the coronavirus, according to the KCDC.
The total number of confirmed cases traced to the church was at 676 as of noon Thursday, up 53 from a day earlier, according to the KCDC. Three cases involved police officers dispatched at the scene.
As of 6 p.m. Wednesday, 3,263 members of the church had been tested, with 19.3 percent of them testing positive for the coronavirus. Some 700 people from the church are refusing to be tested or are not yet able to be reached, according to authorities.
At least 67 cases of secondary transmission linked to the Sarang Jeil Church were confirmed as of Thursday, according to the KCDC. The church-related infections were reported from at least 13 establishments, including call centers, offices, other religious facilities, medical institutions and nursing homes across the country. An epidemiological study is underway into some 150 establishments in connection with the church-related cases.Sporadic COVID-19 outbreaks
Of the new cases reported Thursday, 276 were locally transmitted and 12 were imported from overseas.
Locally transmitted cases are being reported sporadically from several clusters from other churches, offices, nurseries and a franchise coffee chain, mostly in the greater Seoul area.
Over seven days, 1,576 cases have been reported, with the number of new cases in the triple digits each day: 103 on Friday, 166 on Saturday, 279 on Sunday, 197 on Monday, 246 on Tuesday, 297 on Wednesday and 288 on Thursday.
Of locally transmitted cases, 135 cases were registered in Seoul and 81 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital, and 10 in Incheon.Fifteen cases were reported in Busan, with five each in Gangwon Province, North Jeolla Province and North Gyeongsang Province. Four cases were reported in South Chungcheong Province and two each in Daegu, South Jeolla Province and South Gyeongsang Province.
Of Thursday’s 12 imported cases, 10 were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other two detected during the quarantine screening process at the border.
Seven of the newly diagnosed people were foreign nationals. Three came from Asia, four from Europe and five from the Americas.
So far, 14,063 people, or 86.03 percent, have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 57 from a day earlier. Some 1,967 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine. Twelve people remain in serious or critical condition.
Two more people died of the coronavirus as of Thursday, bringing the death toll to 308. The overall case fatality rate as of Wednesday midnight amounted to 1.88 percent -- 2.21 percent for men and 1.61 percent for women.
The country has tested on average 11,312 people per day for the past week, with the number having increased gradually from 6,491 on Aug. 16 to 19,019 on Thursday. It has carried out 1,734,083 tests since Jan. 3, with 34,998 people awaiting results as of Thursday.
The average rate of testing positive stood at 2.27 percent for the past week, according to the KCDC.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com