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Korea to expand COVID-19 testing amid 'biggest' wave of pandemic

There is little traffic on a street in front of Hongik University, usually one of the busiest streets in Seoul, on the night of Wednesday, when new virus cases recorded the second-highest mark of 686 since January. (Yonhap)
There is little traffic on a street in front of Hongik University, usually one of the busiest streets in Seoul, on the night of Wednesday, when new virus cases recorded the second-highest mark of 686 since January. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s health authorities said Thursday that they would expand anonymous COVID-19 testing and enable anyone to be tested for the virus regardless of symptoms, as the country struggles to flatten the curve.

Korea added 682 coronavirus cases -- 646 locally transmitted and 36 originating from overseas -- in the 24 hours ending Wednesday at midnight, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

Thursday’s daily case count marks a slight decrease from a day earlier when 686 new cases were reported, although some of those cases had their dates revised to be included in today’s count. It took only one month for the daily increase in infections rise from below 200 to reach almost 700 for the first time since the virus peaked in Korea in late February.

Starting Monday, additional temporary COVID-19 testing clinics will be set up at 150 locations in the Seoul metropolitan area for the next three weeks to more rapidly identify positive cases. Anyone who seeks it will be tested for the virus anonymously, with only a mobile phone number required.

The move comes as authorities struggle to slow the infection rate amid what they call “the biggest in scale and most prolonged” wave of infections the country has faced since the coronavirus arrived here in January.

As hospital beds for critically ill patients quickly running out, the government and municipalities are scrambling to secure room for the incoming patients. 

In Seoul, home to nearly 10 million people, only three out of 62 beds are available as of Thursday. The country’s capital has reported more than 200 cases daily for eight consecutive days.

While coronavirus outbreaks are taking place nationwide, most of the cases for the past two weeks have been concentrated in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, with 39.1 percent and 26 percent of the total cases reported from these two regions, respectively.

In terms of transmission route, 40.1 percent of the total patients were infected through contact with specific confirmed patients, 28.4 percent were linked to clusters of infections and 6 percent contracted the virus at hospitals and nursing homes.

Transmission routes for 20.5 percent of the cases were unknown for the past two weeks as of Thursday, according to the KDCA.

A new cluster of infections emerged from a nursing home in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, with 21 cases reported so far. The first patient, who tested positive Tuesday, was a family member of a patient who contracted the virus from a restaurant and singing class in central Seoul. In connection with the restaurant, 204 cases have been reported so far, up 15 from a day earlier.

Other new clusters were found from a private cram school in Hwaseong and a religious facility in Anyang, both in Gyeonggi Province, a military barrack in Incheon, a social gathering in Daejeon and a middle school in Ulsan.

Of Thursday’s locally transmitted cases, about 72 percent were in Greater Seoul -- 251 in Seoul, 201 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital, and 37 in Incheon. Outside the Seoul metropolitan area, 31 cases were posted in Busan, with 20 in South Chungcheong Province and 17 in Ulsan.

Of the 36 imported cases reported for the day, 20 were detected at the border, while the other 16 were identified in individuals under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea. Nineteen cases came from the United States, while 10 were from elsewhere in Asia and seven were from Europe.

Twenty-two of those cases were Korean nationals.

The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition here stood at 172, up from 149 a day earlier.

Eight more people died from the virus, bringing the death toll to 564, with the overall fatality rate at 1.41 percent. 

So far, of the 40,098 people confirmed to have contracted the new coronavirus here, 30,637 have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 460 from a day earlier. Some 8,897 people are receiving medical treatment while under quarantine.

The country carried out 24,727 tests in the past day. A total of 72,764 people are awaiting results.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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