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New social distancing plan will consider economy more, health officials say

114 new COVID-19 cases reported ahead of Halloween weekend

Son Young-rae, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare (Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Son Young-rae, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare (Ministry of Health and Welfare)

Ahead of winter, South Korea is rethinking its priorities and amending its pandemic strategy to reflect the limits of social distancing and save the economy, public health authorities said Friday.

Korea conducted 14,253 tests on Thursday and confirmed 114 more cases of the novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s updates. The cumulative number of official cases is 26,385.

Friday marks the third consecutive day of the daily case count hovering above 100. Health authorities are warning that since social distancing rules were relaxed two weeks ago, the virus appears to be spreading more through gatherings of families and friends.

“Refrain from parties and celebrations this Halloween,” Son Young-rae, a Ministry of Health and Welfare spokesperson, said during Friday’s briefing.

“We are seeing more frequent incidence of the infections spreading in households and among friends and acquaintances in communities.”

Smaller clusters of infections are being traced to every day places such as restaurants, cafes, gyms, bathhouses, banks and golf courses, he said.

Since children returned to classrooms in mid-September, at least 77 schools across the country have opened up and closed down again after outbreaks occurred among students and faculty members.

The point of infection is unknown for around 20 percent of the recently diagnosed cases, according to the government data.

Amid the growing risk of sporadic transmission, the Health Ministry is making major revisions to its social distancing plan which will be announced Sunday. The new plan will center on mitigating the economic impact of the coronavirus measures, the ministry hinted.

The Health Ministry on Wednesday said travel and shopping vouchers worth 33 billion won ($29.05 million) will be issued to around 3.3 million people, to be distributed digitally on a first-come, first-served basis, in a bid to boost spending.

“Controlling the coronavirus has to be done in a way that wouldn’t sacrifice the economy,” said Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae in Thursday’s press conference.

“Nine months into the pandemic, the country’s abilities for coronavirus surveillance and containment have improved significantly,” said Son of the Health Ministry. He added that the country could handle a couple of hundred extra cases a day based on the assessed health system capacity.

But with winter just around the corner, health experts worry that Korea, along with the rest of the northern hemisphere, may be headed toward the most treacherous phase of the pandemic.

“A winter wave of the coronavirus could be worse than previous waves. The authorities ought to be planning for a possible worst-case scenario of a resurgence in the winter before proceeding to loosen restrictions,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University Medical Center in Guro, southern Seoul.

“This might not be the best time for reducing social distancing, to say the least,” he said.

Respiratory disease specialist Dr. Chun Eun-mi of western Seoul’s Ewha University Medical Center said that not enough tests are being done to catch up with the fast-moving virus. Over the two weeks since Oct. 12, when most mitigation measures were dropped, 9,452 tests were performed each day on average.

“We are doing very few tests,” she said. To get a more accurate picture about how many people have actually had COVID-19, she called for a wide-scale antibody survey involving tens of thousands of people.

“Remember that COVID-19 is a new disease, for which the full range of its clinical course or long-term effects remains uncertain,” Chun added.

“Through this pandemic, try not to catch it as much as you can.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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