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Level 4 rules could stay in place for Seoul as COVID-19 stays strong

Delta-plus variant adds threat to summer travel woes

A medical staff worker collects sample at a temporary drive-through COVID-19 testing center made in Jungnang-gu, eastern Seoul, on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
A medical staff worker collects sample at a temporary drive-through COVID-19 testing center made in Jungnang-gu, eastern Seoul, on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
South Korea could maintain the strictest level of social distancing in the greater capital region throughout August, as the fourth wave of infections shows little signs of subsiding.

The country on Wednesday reported 1,725 new COVID-19 cases, 1,664 locally transmitted and 61 imported from overseas, raising the cumulative total to 203,926, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

The latest addition is sharply up from 1,200 cases reported a day earlier and 1,218 cases reported Monday. Korea also reported two more deaths from COVID-19, raising the death toll to 2,106.

The country has yet to bring the ongoing fourth COVID-19 wave under control, and authorities have been enforcing the highest level of social distancing rules in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, which together accounted for 65 percent of locally transmitted cases reported Wednesday.

The Greater Seoul area is at the moment under Level 4 social distancing rules, and an additional ban on private gatherings of three or more people after 6 p.m. is in place. In other times, private gatherings of five or more people are not allowed.

Areas outside Greater Seoul are under Level 3 rules and allow people to meet in groups of up to four, but some local governments have enforced Level 4 rules in response to rising number of cases in their precincts.

As the coronavirus situation remains threatening, officials have warned to impose stronger antivirus measures to curb the number of daily cases in coming weeks.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said the government will decide by Friday whether to extend current rules or make adjustments, but signs indicate Level 4 rules would stay in place at least a few more weeks.

According to a survey of 1,000 adults released Tuesday from the conducted by the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, 84 percent of respondents positively rated extending Level 4 social distancing rules in the greater capital region, while 12.8 percent were against it.

Son Young-rae, an official with the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said what level of social distancing rules to apply has not been decided, but emphasized the ban on gatherings of three or more past 6 p.m. will stay in place if Level 4 rules are extended.

It was already forecast that the number of daily new cases could exceed 2,000 by late August, which could prompt authorities to extend Level 4 rules and even apply greater restrictions, especially when they are backed by poll results.

Dangers also remain in place for the current wave to grow even stronger, as COVID-19 variants continue to be reported. Health authorities on Tuesday confirmed the first two cases of the delta-plus variant for Korea.

The two cases were found from patients who had been fully vaccinated with AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine.

Lee Sang-won, head of the KDCA’s epidemiological investigations team, said “breakthrough infections are possible” with the delta-plus variant, even though no evidence so far suggests that the variant makes COVID-19 vaccines less effective.

The delta variant has already become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Korea. The mutated strain showed up in 61.5 percent of patient samples analyzed last week, up 13.5 percentage points from a week earlier.

Since starting the national COVID-19 vaccination rollout in late February, South Korea has completed inoculating the first shots of COVID-19 vaccines to 20.17 million people, or 39.3 percent of the 51.3 million population. Some 14.2 percent of the population have been fully vaccinated.

The country plans to complete first doses of a vaccine for 70 percent of the population within September as a means to reach herd immunity in November.

Criticism has also recently been aimed at the government for allegedly being slow in procuring COVID-19 vaccines supplies for 2022, as the pandemic is expected to continue and vaccination could still be in demand due to mutated strains.

It was reported that countries like Israel and Japan have already inked deals with vaccine developers for next year’s supply, causing many to demand the government to be more swift in reaching vaccine deals with foreign developers.

Lee Ki-il, a senior official with the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said in a press briefing Wednesday that the government is entering the final stage of negotiations with vaccine developers with cash set aside within the supplementary budget.

The government is planning to buy enough doses to inoculate 50 million people, which would be enough to provide shots to the country’s population, barring those aged below 6.

While local pharmaceutical companies are in the progress of developing their own COVID-19 vaccines, Lee said the government has yet to sign any purchase agreements with them, as clinical trial results are needed to make a decision.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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