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South Korea mobilizes Army, police to ramp up COVID-19 contract tracing

Medical workers attend to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at Gangwon National University Hospital. (Yonhap)
Medical workers attend to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at Gangwon National University Hospital. (Yonhap)


Hundreds of Army and police personnel will be dispatched to break the chain of infection of the novel coronavirus, which has seen an average of more than 600 cases diagnosed each day over the past week here.

Despite the government’s stronger social distancing measures implemented from earlier this week, cases have continued to grow daily with no signs of abating.

Sharp upticks in new cases, which began in mid-November and centered on Seoul and surrounding areas, have drawn concerns that the third wave of COVID-19 infections the country is seeing would take a greater toll than the previous crises the country experienced earlier in the year.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun vowed to put all-out efforts into combatting the surge of COVID-19 infections in the Seoul metropolitan area to prevent the spread of the virus to other less affected regions.

“We will dispatch 800 personnel of military, police and civil servants to each region of the metropolitan area to support epidemiological investigations,” he said in a Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters meeting.

The push for epidemiological investigations comes as health authorities struggle to slow the infection rate, with an increasing number of patients with unknown transmission routes.

The proportion of cases with unknown transmission routes stood at 20.5 percent, or 1,609 of the total new cases that have been confirmed in the last two weeks since Nov. 27.

The figure has been on an upward trend in recent days from 17.8 percent on Dec. 7 to 20.5 percent Thursday, making it more challenging to identify chains of infections.

On Friday, the country reported 689 more cases, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, hitting the second-highest figure since January, when the country reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case.

The total caseload now stands at 40,786. Eight additional coronavirus deaths were reported, raising the death toll to 572.

Of the new cases, those detected in Greater Seoul accounted for over 75 percent, with 252 confirmed in Seoul, 229 in Gyeonggi Province and 37 in Incheon.

The number of patients in critical condition has been steadily increasing from 97 on Dec. 1 to 169 on Friday.

The government plans to secure 1,000 more hospital beds, mainly at public hospitals in Seoul and nearby areas, and operate them from next week.

To prepare for further surges in demand for care, the government will designate more specialized infectious disease hospitals in addition to those picked by regional governments.

Bed capacity for patients with severe cases of COVID-19 has reached saturation. Of 583 critical-care beds across the country, only 52 are available.

”We have acquired 210 beds for COVID-19 patients and plan to expand the number to 331 by the end of the year. Works are underway to increase the number of critical-care beds in the Seoul metropolitan area to 215 until the year-end,“ Yoon Tae-ho, a senior Health Ministry official, said during a briefing.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government said Friday that 14,076 people underwent diagnostics tests on Thursday, the largest number ever recorded in the capital.

“We are not in a situation to see any delays in testing as not only the city government but also private companies are performing tests,” said Park Yoo-mi, a disease control official at the city government.

By Park Han-na (hnpark@heraldcorp.com)
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