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Record COVID-19 surge pushes Seoul to ‘toughest-ever’ social distancing

Reopening canceled, evening gatherings of more than two people banned in Seoul

A street in Hongdae, a typically busy Seoul neighborhood known for its nightlife, appears empty on Thursday evening. (Yonhap)
A street in Hongdae, a typically busy Seoul neighborhood known for its nightlife, appears empty on Thursday evening. (Yonhap)

Korea on Friday announced further restrictions to tame a record surge in COVID-19 cases from Monday onward, including a ban in the capital region on social gatherings of more than two people past 6 p.m. and total closures of bars and other nightlife establishments.

In the last 24 hours ending Thursday midnight, the country logged its highest daily total of 1,316 cases, according to official statistics, topping the previous worst 1,275 cases of the day before.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a government COVID-19 response meeting Friday that the wider Seoul area -- which includes nearby Incheon and Gyeonggi Province -- will be subject to the most stringent degree of social distancing restrictions for two weeks until July 25.

“The situation in Seoul leaves us with no choice but to tighten measures,” Kim said.

The prime minister said additional restrictions “may be needed” for the rest of the country, which went through with reopening last week. Busan and Daejeon decided to restore some of the restrictions Thursday.

The measures announced are the harshest ever to be imposed in Korea, coming after the country had been moving toward reopening in recent weeks.

Starting Monday in the Seoul area, up to four people can socialize at a time before 6 p.m., after which only two are allowed. Since December, people have been barred from gathering for nonessential purposes in groups larger than four.

Schools will go back to full-time virtual learning and care services can only operate at half capacity. Workplaces are recommended to adopt remote working arrangements for at least 30 percent of their employees. The 10 p.m. curfew will be back on for food outlets and indoor sports venues, while full closures will be enforced for nightlife businesses such as bars and nightclubs. Public events of any sort, no matter the size, will be banned.

Post-vaccine incentives such as waivers from face mask mandates and gathering bans have also been deferred.

Kwon Jun-wook, the deputy chief of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, told a Friday televised briefing that the current wave was “different” from the last wave in December that left over 800 dead.

“Korea is, for lack of a better word, at an advantage now that vaccinations are completed for more than 10 percent of the population -- most of them at-risk groups -- which is why hospitalizations and deaths aren’t really rising,” he said, echoing the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s assessment a day earlier.

The ministry’s spokesperson Son Young-rae said as groups more susceptible to severe forms of COVID-19 are vaccinated, less people were falling critically or fatally sick.

But in Korea, full vaccination rates remain low even among older people, except for those aged 75 and above, for whom the Pfizer vaccine was offered from April. Close to 83 percent of over-75s have completed the two-dose vaccination series.

On the other hand, the vast majority of people in their 60s and early 70s have just started getting their first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine last month. Although more than 80 percent of people in this age group have been vaccinated with a first dose, less than 1 percent are fully vaccinated, as the second dose is administered after 11 to 12 weeks.

As just one dose of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines provides far less protection from the delta variant, known to be the most transmissible version of COVID-19 yet, getting the two full doses is important, according to infectious disease professor Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University.

Kim pointed out that 70 percent of people in Korea have not been vaccinated at all, with just 11 percent fully vaccinated. Vaccinations of 20- to 50-somethings, who are more socially active, have yet to begin.

“One dose does not provide enough protection against delta, which may be associated with an increased risk of hospitalization, according to a study out of the UK,” he said.

He added that based on the rate by which delta’s share is growing, by early August it is estimated to become the dominant strain in Korea.

Pushing ahead with reopening and signaling to the public that a “more normal” reality could return in summer were to blame for the COVID-19 mire Korea finds itself in, Kim said. “Korea wasn’t ready for less social distancing yet, not with the current rate of vaccinations. We shouldn’t be basing projections and policies on single-dose vaccination rates.”

So far, neither delta nor other variants of concern have become the leading strain in Korea, and their impact appears minor, according to the Health Ministry spokesperson Son. Delta made up roughly 10 percent of all variant cases identified in the analysis from last week, he said.

Even with the unprecedented restrictions though, containing the latest wave will not be easy, according to Dr. Jung Ki-suck, former director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He said it could take “longer than two weeks to bring the patient numbers down to a manageable level.” Beds for patients with mild to moderate cases were already running out in Seoul, with some having to be transported to facilities outside the city.

“Korea might need to impose even tougher rules truly akin to a lockdown,” he said. “The ones being imposed are hardly a lockdown in its true sense. There are no restrictions on travel, for instance.”

More than four months since Korea’s vaccination campaign began on Feb. 26, 30 percent of 51 million in the country have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 11 percent are fully vaccinated. Over the past week, an average of 72,983 doses were administered each day.

Korea aims to deliver first-dose vaccinations to 70 percent of the population -- the threshold the government has set for herd immunity -- before the end of September.

Since the pandemic began, 165,344 people have been infected in Korea, of whom 2,036 have died.

By Kim Arin (