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COVID-19 curfew, gatherings ban to extend through Seollal

Another big wave of infections inevitable, experts warn

A street in Myeong-dong, a popular tourist district in Seoul, appears empty Friday. (Yonhap)
A street in Myeong-dong, a popular tourist district in Seoul, appears empty Friday. (Yonhap)

The South Korean government on Sunday decided against lifting social distancing restrictions as planned, amid concerns holiday travel and gatherings could lead to a COVID-19 surge.

This means the 9 p.m. curfew for places with high-contagion risks including food outlets and the ban on gatherings of five people or more will remain in place for another two weeks until after the Seollal holiday on Feb. 14.

“The ban on gatherings includes family members who don’t live together. No exceptions will be made for Seollal,” Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Kang Do-tae told a news briefing.

The vice minister asked for compliance with the measures to “overcome the crisis together,” adding he was “truly sorry to the small business owners and others affected by social distancing.”

The government had planned on lifting the restrictions, but the notion was nixed after cases increased over the week.

“There have been discussions within the government of loosening social distancing restrictions on Friday, but following outbreaks across the country, that decision is now being reconsidered,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said ahead of the weekend.

While the wounds from the December peak are still fresh, health experts delivered somber warnings that another big wave of infections may be imminent.

“Another wave of infections is inevitable, and it could be here earlier than anticipated,” said professor of preventive medicine Dr. Jung Jae-hun from Gachon University.

“It took around 122 days for the second wave to hit Korea after the first one subsided, and 45 days for the third one to arrive following the second one,” he said, arguing that the next wave could arrive even faster.

“Based on this calculation, we may reach the height of the fourth wave between early March and April with as many as 2,000 new infections daily,” he said, adding that although it is “hard to estimate the timing,” the country should be ready for the scenario. “Depending on our response now we could either delay or hasten its arrival.”

Jung also said each wave was likely to be “more devastating than the last.”

The daily average of new cases rose with each wave’s passing, he said. At the end of the first wave, the number of cases hovered around 10 to 30 a day, and by the second wave’s end it was 50 to 100 a day. He predicted that the third wave could raise the baseline to 200 to 500 cases a day.

“This is why the sooner the vaccinations can start, the better. And in the meantime, social distancing and other public health interventions will have to be maintained,” he said.

While small businesses have called for the relaxation of social distancing, recent trends point to the contrary, according to epidemiologist Dr. Ki Mo-ran.

Associations representing small and micro businesses have protested the prolonged closures and scarce compensation -- around 2 million won ($1,800) at most per business for the whole of last year -- with relief package bills pending in parliament. A petition asking to address the COVID-19 policy’s “unfair burden on small business owners” posted on the Cheong Wa Dae website garnered more than 200,000 signatures earlier this month.

But “Korea’s case growth rate and other metrics are still eligible for the second-strictest social distancing tier that is currently in place,” Ki said.

The case counts over the four days of Wednesday to Saturday were 559, 497, 469 and 458, respectively, indicating a jump from the previous week’s average of 392 cases per day.

Modeling data from the National Institute for Mathematical Sciences and the Korean Mathematical Society’s Friday report shows that the R0, or the basic reproduction number, rose to 0.73-1.24 this week from 0.65-0.8 a week ago. The R0 is defined as the average number of secondary cases generated per infectious case.

“The government will have to compensate struggling businesses through other means -- with payoffs and other financial incentives -- not in a way that compromises public health,” she said, warning of complacency setting in.

“The second wave in summer peaked at 400-something cases a day, which is just about the numbers being reported now. We have to be wary of growing numb to the statistics.”

Respiratory disease specialist Dr. Chun Eun-mi agrees that more intensive social distancing is needed until enough people are vaccinated. In the absence of mitigation efforts, a renewed spike could follow the upcoming holiday season and the spring semester, she said.

“Mind you, we’re still not past the third wave, and winter will persist for at least a couple of months,” she said.

She said the recent climb in cases could be the result of reopening certain high-risk venues about two weeks ago: “If the government can’t protect vulnerable businesses while the necessary social distancing lasts and resorts to hasty reopening, another resurgence will be the price we have to pay.”

Meanwhile, Sunday marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern -- the highest level of alarm under international law. As of Sunday, there have been over 102 million confirmed cases globally and 2.2 million deaths.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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