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S. Korea 'seriously considering' stricter social distancing

This photo taken on Saturday, shows the main gate of Chonnam National University Hospital in Gwangju, 330 kilometers southwest of Seoul, after one of its medical staff members tested positive for the coronavirus a day earlier. (Yonhap)
This photo taken on Saturday, shows the main gate of Chonnam National University Hospital in Gwangju, 330 kilometers southwest of Seoul, after one of its medical staff members tested positive for the coronavirus a day earlier. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s new daily COVID-19 case count topped 200 for the second consecutive day on Sunday due to sporadic clusters of infections, prompting health authorities to “seriously” consider tightening antivirus restrictions.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Sunday that the government issued a “preliminary warning” for the Greater Seoul area and Gangwon Province grappling with surges in coronavirus cases.  

Korea reported 208 new coronavirus cases -- 176 locally transmitted and 32 imported from overseas -- in the 24 hours ending Saturday at midnight, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

The daily tally saw a triple-digit gain for eight days straight as of Sunday, with the number of new cases having exceeded 200 for the first time in 73 days Saturday.

Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo on Sunday called for vigilance in practicing social distancing to contain the spread of the coronavirus, adding tougher antivirus rules could disrupt daily routines and livelihoods.

“Given the patterns and pace of transmission, we see an urgent situation where COVID-19 begins to spread despite health authorities’ (efforts) to contain and block the virus,” he said, warning of a “severe” winter.

“We will consult with municipalities over whether to raise the level of social distancing in the Seoul metropolitan area and Gangwon Province, taking into account various indicators such as proportion of patients aged 60s or over as well as treatment capacity for critically ill patients.”

The country brought massive outbreaks linked to a large rally and a church in Seoul in August under control, which led the government to put in place the least restrictive anti-virus measures nationwide for the past month.

Level 1 rules in the country’s new five-tier distancing scheme have been in place in most parts of the country, with some municipalities having upped the level due to fresh outbreaks in their regions. 

But sporadic clusters of infections continue to emerge in connection with social gatherings, nursing and medical institutions and workplaces, with the seven-day daily average of new cases across the country having increased from 86.9 in the last week of October, 88.7 in the first week of November and 122.4 in the past week.

Level 1 rules are imposed when the number of daily new cases stays below 100 in the Greater Seoul area; below 30 in the Chungcheong, Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces; and below 10 in Gangwon Province and on Jeju Island.

Under Level 1, people are required to follow basic guidelines, such as wearing masks, and gatherings of over 500 people are not recommended. Under Level 1.5, gatherings of 100 or more people are restricted, eating and dancing at high-risk facilities such as nightclubs and karaoke rooms are prohibited, and fewer people are allowed inside indoor facilities such as funeral homes, public saunas, theaters and private cram schools.

Of Sunday’s locally transmitted cases, the majority were in Greater Seoul -- 81 in Seoul, 41 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital, and two in Incheon. Nineteen cases were reported in Gangwon Province, eight each in North Chungcheong Province and South Jeolla Province, and seven in Gwangju.

The transmission routes for 13.7 percent of cases reported for the past two weeks remained unknown as of Sunday, according to the KDCA.

Korea reported 32 imported cases. Among them, 14 were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other 18 detected during the screening process at the border. Sixteen cases were from elsewhere in Asia, 10 from the Americas and six from Europe. Ten of those cases involved foreign nationals.

The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition here was 56.

One more person died from the virus, bringing the death toll to 493. The overall fatality rate is now 1.73 percent.

So far, of the 28,546 people confirmed to have contracted the new coronavirus here, 25,691 have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 55 from a day earlier. Some 2,362 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine. 

The country carried out 9,589 tests in the past day. A total of 36,378 people were awaiting results.

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