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COVID-19 cases top 500 for 2nd day amid third wave

Health workers disinfect a classroom at a school in Daegu on Thursday, one week before the national college entrance exam. (Yonhap)
Health workers disinfect a classroom at a school in Daegu on Thursday, one week before the national college entrance exam. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s new daily COVID-19 case count topped 500 for the second consecutive day Friday, prompting health authorities to consider further tightening social distancing measures amid a full-blown third wave of infections across the country.

The country reported 569 new cases -- 525 locally transmitted cases and 44 imported from overseas -- in the 24 hours ending Thursday at midnight, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

A day earlier, Korea saw the daily case numbers surpass 500 for the first time in over eight months with 583 cases, after adding 382 cases on Wednesday, 349 on Tuesday and 271 on Monday.

Sonh Young-rae, an official from the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, said at a briefing Friday that the government is discussing whether and how to toughen social distancing measures nationwide.

The final decision on adjusting the level of social distancing is expected to be announced Sunday, he added, after consulting municipalities and experts.

Only the capital area has been under Level 2 social distancing measures -- the third highest in the country’s five-tier system – since Tuesday. Under Level 2 restrictions, the size of gatherings is limited to 100, businesses of high-risk facilities such as nightclubs are suspended, indoor sports facilities are closed after 9 p.m., only takeaway and delivery services are allowed at cafes and dine-in services are only available until 9 p.m. at restaurants.

Korea is experiencing a full-blown third wave of infections. With the virus spreading at a faster pace than ever, outbreaks are taking place nationwide and sources of infections are diversifying. The major age groups affected are shifting from older to younger populations.

For the past week, the average daily number of COVID-19 cases was 410 -- 382.7 locally transmitted – nearly meeting the threshold for Level 2.5 social distancing measures. The authorities consider putting into place Level 2.5 rules in the country’s five-tier social distancing scheme when about 400 to 500 cases are reported daily for a weeklong period.

Health authorities cautiously expect the upward trend in new daily COVID-19 cases could continue until early December, with the peak to be reached at the end of next week. The upward trend could be reversed next week as tougher social distancing measures in the Greater Seoul area begin to show the impact, they say.

New clusters of infections are being reported from social gatherings and places people visit every day -- ranging from workplaces and indoor sports facilities to public saunas and bars -- making it harder for the government to trace contacts.

On Friday, a new cluster of infections was traced to a workplace, with a total of 15 people infected. Another cluster of infections was linked to an indoor sports facility in northern Seoul, with 13 cases detected so far. Yet another was traced to an acting school in southern Seoul, where 27 people have tested positive so far.

The number of total cases linked to a dance class in western Seoul jumped to 129, up from 66 a day earlier. The dance class was held in a studio underground without sufficient ventilation and participants could not maintain a distance, according to the KDCA.

The transmission routes for 15.4 percent of the cases reported from Nov. 14-27 remained unknown.

With only one week to the country’s national college entrance exam on Dec. 3, 36 more students and six teachers tested positive for the virus Friday, with 309 schools shut down due to the virus situation.

Of Friday’s locally transmitted cases, the majority were in Greater Seoul -- 204 in Seoul, 112 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital, and 21 in Incheon. Outside the Seoul metropolitan area, cases were registered in all 17 cities and provinces, with 38 cases in South Gyeongsang Province, 31 cases in South Chungcheong Province and 24 cases in Busan and North Jeolla Province.

Of the 44 imported cases reported Friday, 31 were detected at the border, while the other 13 were identified in individuals under mandatory self-quarantine. Twenty cases were from the Americas, while 19 cases were from Europe, four came from elsewhere in Asia and one was from Africa.

Thirty-one of those cases involved foreign nationals.

The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition here stood at 77.

One more person died from the virus, bringing the death toll to 516, with the overall fatality rate at 1.57 percent.

So far, of the 32,887 people confirmed to have contracted the new coronavirus here, 27,103 have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 153 from a day earlier. Some 5,268 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine.

The country carried out 21,531 tests in the past day. A total of 56,637 people were awaiting results.

By Ock Hyun-ju (