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S. Korea’s new daily COVID-19 cases top 1,000 for first time

A medical worker collects a specimen from a student at a screening station in Ulsan, 414 kilometers southeast of Seoul, for COVID-19 testing on Saturday. (Yonhap)
A medical worker collects a specimen from a student at a screening station in Ulsan, 414 kilometers southeast of Seoul, for COVID-19 testing on Saturday. (Yonhap)

South Korea’ daily COVID-19 cases surpassed 1,000 for the first time on Sunday, the highest total since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak here in January, as the government’s antivirus restrictions appear to be bearing little fruit.

Calling the current situation “the biggest crisis” since the pandemic arrived here, President Moon Jae-in warned that the country will have to consider enforcing the toughest-level social distancing rules if the virus doesn’t slow down.

Korea added 1,030 coronavirus cases -- 1,002 locally transmitted and 28 originating from overseas -- in the 24 hours ending Saturday at midnight, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

“There is nowhere to step back,” Moon said in an emergency anti-coronavirus meeting, which he presided over for the first time in about 10 months. “If we can’t stop the spread of the virus (now), we have to consider raising the social distancing rules to Level 3.”

Under Level 3 social distancing rules, gatherings of more than 10 people would be banned, schools would have to shut down, and establishments such as theaters and malls would not be allowed to operate. All sporting events would be prohibited, and working from home would be expanded.

As hospital beds are quickly running out amid the surge in infections, Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo said that the government will secure a total of 10,000 hospital beds – including 300 for those critically ill -- for coronavirus patients by Jan. 2 based on the scenario that 1,000 cases will be added per day for the next 20 days. For those critically ill, the government will have to prepare 287 more beds.

Sunday’s daily case broke the previous day’s record high of 950, marking the highest figure since the country reported its first coronavirus case Jan. 20. The daily tally had stayed within the 400 to 600 range earlier this month but soared to 950 on Saturday. It took one month for the daily total to rise from below 200 to more than 1,000 on Sunday.

Korea managed to bring the virus under control with rigorous contact-tracing and testing efforts during the first wave in February and March, which started with a minor religious sect called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, and during the second wave in August and September, which was sparked by a Seoul-based church and a massive Aug. 15 rally.

This time, however, the government is struggling to flatten the virus curve because outbreaks are taking place everywhere from restaurants to workplaces and because the cold weather, coupled with increased indoor activities, creates a favorable environment for the virus to stay alive and spread.

The series of antivirus measures that the government has in place have not been as effective as before in curbing the spread of the virus, seriously yeovertaxing the country’s health system.

In the past week, the government tightened its social distancing rules to Level 2.5, the second-most-restrictive in the country’s five-tier system, in Greater Seoul and made COVID-19 testing available anonymously for anyone regardless of symptoms.

Starting Monday, temporary COVID-19 testing clinics will begin to operate at 150 additional locations in the Seoul metropolitan area, including Seoul Station, for the next three weeks. This will allow anyone who wishes to be tested for the virus to take a test anonymously.

The government and municipalities are scrambling to secure hospital beds for incoming patients. Out of 541 beds for critically ill patients, only 62 beds are available -- including only four in Seoul, two in Incheon and two in Gyeonggi Province.

In Gyeonggi Province, where a record number of 328 cases were registered, Gov. Lee Jae-myung said in a tweet that he is considering raising the level of social distancing there to Level 3. He also said he plans to mobilize a private university dormitory building as a treatment facility to handle a growing number of coronavirus patients.

Seoul, home to nearly 10 million people, also reported a record number of 399 new cases on Sunday. The country’s capital has reported more than 200 cases daily for 11 consecutive days.

Of Sunday’s locally transmitted cases, about 78 percent were in Greater Seoul -- 396 in Seoul, 328 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital, and 62 in Incheon. Outside the Seoul metropolitan area, 56 cases were posted in Busan, 28 in Daegu and 22 in South Jeolla Province.

The seven-day average number of daily COVID-19 cases was 722.4 for the past week.

Transmission routes for 22.3 percent of the cases were unknown for the past two weeks as of Sunday, according to the KDCA.

Of the 28 imported cases reported for the day, 14 were detected at the border, while the other 14 were identified in individuals under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea. Thirteen cases came from elsewhere in Asia, while six cases were from the United States, five came from Europe, three were from Africa and one was from China.

Seventeen of those cases involved Korean nationals.

The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition here increased to 179, more than double the 76 who were seriously ill as of Nov. 30. 

Two more people died from the virus, bringing the death toll to 580, with the overall fatality rate at 1.36 percent. 

So far, of the 42,766 people confirmed to have contracted the new coronavirus here, 31,814 have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 321 from a day earlier. Some 10,372 people are receiving medical treatment while under quarantine.

The country carried out 24,731 tests in the past day. A total of 90,129 people are awaiting results.

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