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New COVID-19 rules to be announced Saturday as winter holiday season near its end

Mass cluster infections and new variant from Britain add to Korea’s woes

A medical worker in protective suit takes nasal sample as a COVID-19 check Thursday at a diagnostics center made near the Seoul Station.
A medical worker in protective suit takes nasal sample as a COVID-19 check Thursday at a diagnostics center made near the Seoul Station.
South Korea will decide on new social distancing rules Saturday, as the country continues to battle the third and deadliest COVID-19 wave to date, officials said Thursday.

The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters said officials are in discussion with experts and local governments to come up with a new plan starting Monday, as the social distancing rules in place will reach their end by Sunday’s end.

At the moment, the region of Greater Seoul, which includes Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, is following Level 2.5 social distancing rules, while Level 2 rules are in place for the rest of the country.

Special rules out of concern of the winter holiday weekends are also in place through the coming weekend to minimize private gatherings and traffic between regions. Some of them are stronger than what would be imposed under the Level 3 social distancing scheme.

“So far we have not witnessed any trend of the number of new patients going on a downward curve to curb the third wave,” said senior Health Ministry official Yoon Tae-ho in a press briefing Thursday.

“But we analyze that the social distancing rules are showing effect even though they might be slow in coming to force. The trend of increase has gradually slowed each week, and the number of new cases has stayed in the 900 or 1,000 range for the past two weeks.”

Korea has been mulling whether to raise its social distancing measures to the highest level, with the country continuing to report high numbers of new coronavirus cases and deaths throughout this month.

Stricter social distancing rules have been in place for the capital region as Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province are responsible for close to 60 percent of all cases reported in Korea since the outbreak started in January.

But authorities have hesitated about raising the social distancing rules as recommended by many local experts out of concern about the potentially devastating economic fallout of having more than 2 million multiuse facilities undergo limitations in business activities.

The country on Thursday reported 967 new COVID-19 cases -- 940 locally transmitted and 27 imported from overseas -- raising the total number of cases recorded in Korea to 60,740.

By Wednesday’s end, Korea also reported a total of 900 deaths from the coronavirus, up 21 from a day earlier. The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition reached 344, up from 332 people a day earlier.

More than 4.21 million COVID-19 tests have been conducted since Jan. 3, and 54,358 samples were taken Wednesday, down from 61,343 samples a day earlier.

Mass infection clusters continued to be reported from eldercare facilities and private gatherings, with hundreds of cases and deaths found just this month.

The government has also been facing criticism for sluggishly responding to a cluster at a correctional facility in Songpa-gu, southern Seoul, where more than 900 COVID-19 cases had been reported by Thursday afternoon.

The Justice Ministry, which manages all correctional facilities in Korea, blamed the center’s layout, poor ventilation system and high population density for the spread of the virus.

Two inmates have died so far from the outbreak there, and the detention center is now running tests on its 3,100 inmates and employees. Hundreds of inmates there were transferred to other prisons in the country.

To minimize contact among inmates, outside visitors and the prison staff, the government on Thursday imposed the highest-tier social distancing rules of Level 3 for prisons across the country, banning visits and canceling all work and classes.

Korea has also been paying close attention to the possibility of a highly contagious COVID-19 variant from Britain gaining greater force on its soil.

The country has so far confirmed five cases of the new variant from imported cases, and experts have emphasized that authorities must not let the new variant gain dominance over the original strain.

As the new variant adds to Korea’s woes in fighting the virus, authorities are in talks to secure enough vaccine for 56 million people and start the national vaccination program in February.

Korea also started reviewing local drug developer Celltrion’s application for its COVID-19 treatment candidate this week, and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a meeting Thursday that the country will be able to present its locally developed vaccine by the end of 2021.

“For the whole year, we have fought against the tough challenge from COVID-19, and the fight is continuing at this moment,” he said. “But from an overall perspective, we should be proud of the progress we have made so far.”

The government also announced Thursday that it will rerun its medical licensing exam in January for fourth-year medical students who missed the exam in September, as a means to tackle the anticipated shortage of 2,700 doctors next year.

By Ko Jun-tae (
catch table
Korea Herald daum