South Korea is contemplating whether to raise its social distancing measures to the highest level, as the country continues to report high numbers of new coronavirus cases and deaths under the third and deadliest wave of the pandemic here.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun urged in a meeting Wednesday that the country thoroughly prepare virus control strategies following the end of this weekend, when the Level 2.5 social distancing rules in the Greater Seoul area and Level 2 rules in the rest of the country come to an end.
“Possibilities remain for the number of new cases to rapidly surge as the amount of traffic and the number of gatherings rise as we near the end of this year,” Chung said.
“Our ratio of confirmed cases to the population is low (when compared to other countries), but around 40 percent of all confirmed cases happened over the past month. The current wave is proving to be the greatest challenge.”
Korea on Wednesday reported 1,050 new COVID-19 cases -- 1,025 locally transmitted and 25 imported from overseas -- raising the total number of cases recorded in the country to 59,773.
Local authorities were initially hopeful of the country regaining control of the ongoing virus wave, after reporting under 1,000 cases for three consecutive days until Monday.
But the virus has remained strong, as the number of new cases spiked above 1,000 another two days in a row.
Mass cluster infections continued at 17 elderly care facilities nationwide, with hundreds of cases and deaths found among patients and employees. Notably, some 180 cases were reported at an elderly medical center in Seoul, and 39 deaths have occurred so far from an elderly hospital in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province.
Another mass cluster infection was reported at Dongbu Detention Center in Seoul, which reported 769 COVID-19 cases and one death as of Tuesday.
Controversy rose as the Justice Ministry failed to respond on time in providing face masks and diagnostic tests to those at the detention center, citing budgetary constraints. Some reports suggested the ministry did not have manuals in place to quarantine and treat virus patients at the facility.
In response to a continued surge in the number of cases and the discovery of mass cluster infections, Korea is maintaining its toughened social distancing rules until Jan. 3, putting the capital region of Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province under Level 2.5 rules and the rest of the country under Level 2.
Authorities additionally implemented much stronger restrictions for the winter holiday season, especially for private gatherings and travel. The capital region also issued administrative orders to ban private gatherings of five or more people until Jan. 3.
Enforcing strict virus control measures in the capital region has been the key focus for local authorities, as the Greater Seoul area is responsible for close to 60 percent of all cases in Korea to date, accounting for 65.8 percent of new daily cases announced Wednesday.
Seoul announced 383 new cases, followed by 274 cases from Gyeonggi Province and Incheon with 48 cases.
“The traffic to and from the capital region reached its lowest level last weekend after falling consecutively for three weeks in a row,” said Yoon Tae-ho, a senior official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, during a press briefing Wednesday.
“If our efforts continue, we assure you that the current crisis could be the last one (in the COVID-19 pandemic).”
Authorities have avoided instating the toughest level of social distancing in fear of stronger restrictions affecting the national economy and the lives of small business owners.
Under Level 3 social distancing, the business activities of more than 2 million multiuse facilities would be affected, with 450,000 of them required to close and 1.57 million others experiencing limitations.
As a means to help businesses that have already been struggling from a prolonged outbreak, the government on Tuesday unveiled a 9.3 trillion-won relief package for 5.8 million people whose businesses were damaged from social distancing rules.
Local authorities also are on close watch for an influx of a new variant of COVID-19 first detected in Britain, five cases of which have been discovered in Korea so far.
On Wednesday, local authorities identified two new cases of the variant from a man in his 80s who posthumously tested positively for the coronavirus after entering Korea from Britain on Dec. 13 and a woman in her 20s who traveled from Britain to Korea with a flight transfer in the United Arab Emirates.
Britain has imposed heavy restrictions on its population to fight the new variant, and Korea announced Monday it would extend the suspension of flights arriving from the country, which was due to expire Thursday at midnight, for another week.
And to prevent additional fatalities during this deadliest wave of the pandemic, Korea is continuing its search for available hospital beds to provide treatment for severely ill coronavirus patients.
By the end of Sunday, Korea had reported a total of 879 deaths from the novel coronavirus, up 20 from a day earlier. The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition reached 332, up from 330 people a day earlier.
The Health Ministry said there were 217 available hospital beds across the country for severe COVID-19 patients, with 120 of them in the capital region. Some 23 people were awaiting beds as of Wednesday, and hospitals were prepared to host 8,700 more COVID-19 patients.
Meanwhile, Korea added 25 cases from overseas Wednesday, raising the total to 5,358 cases. Eight new cases were from the United States, followed by four from Myanmar and two each from the Philippines, Indonesia and Mexico.
Close to 4.16 million COVID-19 checks have been conducted since Jan. 3, and 61,343 samples were taken Tuesday, up from 59,874 samples a day earlier.
In light of continuing challenges from the prolonged outbreak, authorities have vowed to start nationwide vaccination in February with front-line medical workers and vulnerable populations the first inoculation targets.
“We expect to gain an upper hand in our fight against COVID-19 after overcoming the current challenge as vaccines are expected to arrive in the first quarter,” the Health Ministry’s Yoon said.
US biotech firm Moderna said Tuesday that the company discussed with Korea to “potentially provide 40 million or more doses” of its COVID-19 vaccine. If the deal with Moderna is finalized and becomes official, the government expects to secure enough vaccine doses for 56 million people.
That Moderna vaccine could also reach the arms of Korean soldiers and civilian workers affiliated with the US Forces Korea in the near future, with the Defense Ministry’s announcement Wednesday that it will allow USFK-affiliated Koreans to get COVID-19 vaccinations shipped from the US for its troops.
The USFK began administering Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday to its health care workers, first responders and command team after the vaccine arrived in the country last week.
The government is also working with the Korean Nurses Association to have up to 5,000 nurses on standby, as opposed to the current 4,000, Yoon said. Officials are negotiating compensation for medical workers who cooperate with COVID-19 response efforts, he added.
By Ko Jun-tae (email@example.com