People wait to get tested for COVID-19 at a public health center in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s daily new COVID-19 case count surged to its highest since April as eased social distancing guidelines were set to take effect.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Wednesday reported 794 virus cases confirmed the previous day. Over 80 percent of the new infections were found in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province.
With the less strict social distancing guidelines set to take effect Thursday, health authorities are closely monitoring daily infection tallies.
“Over the past week, an average of 465 patients a day has been reported. Infection is spreading in daily spaces including universities, workplaces and restaurants,” said Yoon Tae-ho, a senior Health Ministry official.
“With people in their 20s and 30s at the forefront, infection among the young and elderly who have not been vaccinated is significantly increasing.”
Under a four-tier standard, the relaxed social distancing guidelines will allow businesses to stay open longer at night. Gatherings of bigger groups of people will be permitted.
But because the number of newly confirmed cases has escalated in the larger capital area, the local governments of Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon decided to extend the current social distancing guidelines for a week.
Private gatherings of up to four people will be allowed in these areas. Cafes, restaurants and entertainment facilities will have to close their doors at 10 p.m.
The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters said it respects the decision of the local governments, agreeing with the one week extension of the current social distancing guidelines.
Health authorities also plan to conduct extensive inspections of virus-prone facilities in the region.
People who have received their first jabs are allowed to take off their masks outside, starting Thursday, while keeping a distance of at least 2 meters from other people. If variants of the virus spread further, mask-wearing will be mandatory for everyone once again, health authorities said.
“The delta variant is gradually increasing now, so we are monitoring the situation with considerable concern,” said Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
“However, the variants including all types have not yet become the dominant kind (of infection) in our country’s pandemic situation. Alpha variants make up the largest of all variants and delta variants are still a small portion.”
The more contagious delta variant of the virus has not led to mass transmissions in Korea, but other countries with higher vaccination rates, including the US and the UK, are struggling with the rapidly spreading variant.
Despite the eased social distancing guidelines, citizens seem to be hesitant about resuming private gatherings. According to a government survey, only 11 percent of the respondents said they will immediately restart gatherings while 42 percent said it is too early to meet in large groups.
Meanwhile, the government is considering whether to recommend coronavirus booster shots after the second dose to better curb its spread.
“We are reviewing booster shots for not only the Janssen vaccine recipients, but also those who were fully inoculated with other vaccines,” said Hong Jeong-ik of the government’s COVID-19 vaccination response task force.
“Research is taking place overseas to figure out which vaccines will be given over and during the inoculation period. Based on scientific evidence, we will make a plan accordingly.”
By Kan Hyeong-woo (firstname.lastname@example.org