South Korea’s daily tally of new COVID-19 cases stayed below 300 for the second consecutive day Tuesday in a week that authorities see as the last opportunity to bring the virus situation under control.
Korea announced 280 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday -- 264 locally transmitted and 16 imported from overseas, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kwon Jun-wook, deputy director of the KCDC, warned that seemingly stagnant number of infections for the past two days is “the calm before the storm” on the verge of the virus spreading nationwide beyond the Seoul metropolitan area.
“It is very premature to say the upward trend (in COVID-19 infections) has stopped and we see it as a situation under which there are risk factors for a further increase (in infections),” Kwon said at a briefing Tuesday.
Tuesday’s tally, which counts cases up to midnight Monday, marks a slight increase from 266 new cases reported the previous day. Prior to that there were three days of exceeding 300 -- 397 on Sunday, 332 on Saturday and 324 on Friday.
Of the locally transmitted cases, the overwhelming majority were registered in the Greater Seoul area -- 134 in Seoul, 15 in neighboring Incheon and 63 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital.
Only 16.4 percent of the hospital beds for those in serious and critical condition are left in the region. In Seoul alone, 44.8 percent of the new cases reported Tuesday had their transmission routes unidentified, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Students in the Seoul metropolitan area -- Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon -- will transition to remote learning, except for seniors in high school, with all kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools, and special-purpose schools in the region to remain closed until Sept. 11.
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae made the announcement at a briefing Tuesday, which was also attended by education superintendents for Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, adding that turning to online learning was inevitable to stem the spread of COVID-19.
The move comes amid a rising number of COVID-19 cases involving students and educators. As of Tuesday, 307 students and 74 teachers had tested positive for the coronavirus, with 2,100 schools shut down again.
For other kindergartens and schools outside the Seoul metropolitan area, existing rules apply -- student attendance is limited to one-third the normal numbers in classrooms for kindergartens, elementary and middle schools, and to two-thirds for high schools.
Even if government social distancing guidance is raised to the highest level, this year’s college entrance exam is to be held offline, Yoo said, citing “fairness.” The date of the exam could change, however, depending on the coronavirus situation.
Outside the Seoul metropolitan area, new cases were reported in all administrative regions except for Ulsan, North Chungcheong Province and North Gyeongsang Province.
New clusters of infections keep popping up simultaneously across the country, ranging from cafes to fitness centers. Fourteen new cases were reported on Tuesday in connection with a fitness center in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province.
At the center of the resurgence of the virus in Korea are the Sarang Jeil Church and a massive rally held Aug. 15 in central Seoul.
The number of cases traced to the Seoul-based church and the rally totaled 915, up 40 from a day earlier. About 64 percent of the confirmed patients are over 50. The church-linked cases spread to 22 establishments, with 120 cases of secondary transmission reported so far.
A total of 193 cases were confirmed in connection with the rally, up 17 from the previous day. The authorities are cooperating with mobile phone companies to identify those who were in the Gwanghwamun Square area on Aug. 15, using location tracking data.
Some 32 percent of confirmed patients are in their 60s has risen in the last two weeks, and the number of people in serious or critical condition has more than tripled from 12 on Aug. 19 to 38 on Aug. 25.
Transmission routes for 16.9 percent of the new cases reported from Aug. 12-25 were unidentified.
Of the 16 imported cases, 13 were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other three detected during the quarantine screening process at the border. Six cases originated in Asia, eight from the Americas and two from Europe. Thirteen of those patients were foreign nationals.
So far, of 17,945 people confirmed to have the virus in Korea, 14,286 have been released from isolation. Some 3,349 people are still receiving treatment.
One more person died of the coronavirus, with the death toll at 310. The overall fatality rate amounted to 1.73 percent -- 2.03 percent for men and 1.48 percent for women -- as of Tuesday.
The country has carried out 1,825,837 tests since Jan. 3, with 50,362 people awaiting results as of Tuesday.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com