South Korea’s health authorities are being forced to seriously consider near lockdown measures, as the country saw the biggest single-day increase since March 7 with 441 new cases Thursday.
Korea announced 434 locally transmitted cases and seven imported from overseas, with the total caseload at 18,706, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Seoul, Incheon and Gwangju saw their biggest single-day jumps in infections – 154, 59 and 39, respectively.
“The government is aware of the gravity of the (virus) situation and is considering all possibilities, including raising the social distancing level to the highest, and we will take necessary measures promptly and boldly,” said Yoon Tae-ho, a senior official from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, at a briefing Thursday.
Whether, when and how to implement the strictest social distancing guidelines will be decided through discussions soon, he added.
The toughest Level 3 social distancing in the three-tier system is tantamount to a lockdown, under which more businesses must be shut down, gatherings of more than 10 people banned, sports events suspended and public facilities closed. More people should work from home and students must turn even more to online learning.
Ten days into nationwide Level 2 social distancing, Kwon Jun-wook, the KCDC deputy director, said the resurgence of the coronavirus is not being contained as expected.
Kwon said the virus, which had been silently spreading in communities since early May, had been “triggered” by clusters of infections at the Sarang Jeil Church and Aug. 15 rally and led to an extensive range of transmission across the country. He also cited “very diverse transmission chains” and “increased movement of people” during the summer vacation season as reasons.
Infections from unidentified sources make it harder for authorities to contain the spread of the virus further.
“We don’t know how they got infected for more than 30 percent of the patients (confirmed) today,” Kwon said at a briefing Thursday.
Transmission routes for 19.4 percent of the new cases reported Aug. 15-27 were unidentified, according to the KCDC. In Seoul alone, 35.7 percent of the new cases reported Wednesday were from untraceable sources.
Thursday’s jump in infections is the biggest single-day increase since March 7, when 483 cases were reported amid a massive outbreak traced to the minor religious sect Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province.
Of the locally transmitted cases Thursday, the vast majority, or 313, were registered in the Seoul metropolitan area -- 154 in Seoul, 59 in neighboring Incheon and 100 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital. It marks the first time that more than 300 cases were reported in a single day in the Seoul metropolitan area.
Outside the Seoul area, new cases were reported in all administrative regions except for Sejong. There were 39 cases in Gwangju, 15 in South Chungcheong Province, 14 in Gangwon Province, 13 in South Jeolla Province, 12 in Daegu and eight each in Busan and South Gyeongsang Province.
The number of cases traced to the Seoul-based Sarang Jeil Church increased by 26, bringing the total related cases to 959 as of noon Thursday. The virus from the church spread to some 23 establishments, infecting 140 other people, according to the KCDC.
A total of 273 cases were reported in connection with the rally as of noon Thursday, up 54 from the previous day.
The massive clusters of infections from the church and Aug. 15 rally held in central Seoul are leading to sporadic, simultaneous COVID-19 transmissions across the country at such places as cafes, restaurants, offices, apartment buildings, fitness centers, churches and more.
Another cluster of infections was reported at a church in Gwangju after the initial patient, who had attended the Aug. 15 rally, participated in worship services, sickening 30 others so far.
Gwangju Mayor Lee Yong-seop on Thursday issued an administrative order tightening social distancing rules, expanding a ban on gatherings to mid-risk facilities including theme parks and public saunas.
Thursday’s tally, which counts cases up to midnight Wednesday, marks a jump from 320 new cases reported the day prior, with 280 Tuesday and 266 Monday, after three days of surpassing 300 -- 397 on Sunday, 332 on Saturday and 324 on Friday.
The number of new infections per day has been in the triple digits since Aug. 14, when 103 new cases were reported.
Fears over the spread of the coronavirus led to the shutdown of a record number of schools – 7,032 -- across the country as of Thursday morning, according to the Ministry of Education. So far, 337 students and 89 educators have tested positive for the virus.
Of the seven imported cases, four were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other three detected during the quarantine screening process at the border. Five cases originated in Asia and two were from the Americas. Four of the newly diagnosed people were foreign nationals.
So far, 14,461 people, or 77.31 percent, have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 93 from a day earlier. Some 3,932 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine. Forty-six people remain in serious or critical condition.
One more person died of the coronavirus, placing the death toll at 313. The overall fatality rate amounted to 1.67 percent -- 1.95 percent for men and 1.44 percent for women -- as of Thursday. Nearly 98 percent of those who died of the virus had pre-existing illnesses.
The country has carried out 1,849,579 tests since Jan. 3, with 52,041 people awaiting results as of Thursday.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com