South Korea scrambles to contain new spike in coronavirus cases

Authorities looking to find and test thousands after cases traced to a number of clubs and bars in Seoul.

    Commuters in the morning rush hour at a subway station in Seoul as the authorities step up efforts to find and test thousands of people who could have been exposed to the virus at a number of city bars and nightclubs [Yonhap via EPA]
    Commuters in the morning rush hour at a subway station in Seoul as the authorities step up efforts to find and test thousands of people who could have been exposed to the virus at a number of city bars and nightclubs [Yonhap via EPA]

    South Korean officials scrambled on Monday to contain a new coronavirus outbreak linked to Seoul's nightlife that threatens the densely populated capital.

    Officials reported 35 new infections across the country as of midnight on Sunday, the highest numbers in more than a month, reinforcing fears the country could be entering a second wave outbreak.

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    The 69 cases reported by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) over the past 48 hours were equivalent to the number of cases recorded in the country over the entire previous week.

    Most of the new cases were linked to an outbreak at several Seoul nightclubs and bars. Authorities had tested 4,000 people who had patronised the nightspots, but were still trying to track down approximately 3,000 more.

    "Our top priority is to minimise the spread of the infections in the greater Seoul area," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a meeting with government officials on Monday.

    'Distancing in daily life'

    Chung called for local governments to mobilise as many personnel as available and work with police to track down the missing patrons, some of whom authorities suspect of intentionally avoiding being tested.

    "We should quickly find and test them and speed is key," he said.

    The spike in cases comes just as the South Korean government was easing some social-distancing restrictions and moving to fully reopen schools and businesses, in a transition from intensive social distancing to "distancing in daily life."

    Seoul's education superintendent proposed delaying the reopening of schools by a week in light of the new outbreak, Yonhap news agency reported. Classes were due to resume on Wednesday.

    Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon pleaded with clubbers to be tested, warning that people caught evading testing could be fined.

    "If Seoul was penetrated, the nation is at risk," he said, noting the city currently has fewer than 700 of the nation's 10,909 cases, which include 256 deaths.

    In a speech to the nation on Sunday, President Moon Jae-in warned that "it's not over until it's over," adding that the new cluster shows the virus can spread widely at any time.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency