South Korea logs record 1,030 cases amid ‘COVID-19 emergency’

Authorities warn they may have to tighten physical distancing measures to nation’s highest level if spread continues.

South Korean woman walks empty street during COVID
A previously crowded shopping street affected by heightened social distancing rules is pictured amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, December 8, 2020 [Kim Hong-Ji/ Reuters]

South Korea reported 1,030 new coronavirus infections on Sunday, its largest single-day jump and the second daily record in a row, putting pressure on authorities to further tighten physical distancing rules.

Of the new cases, 1,002 were locally transmitted, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KCDA) said, with most cases linked to outbreaks at private gatherings, churches and a hospital in the Greater Seoul area.

The figure brought South Korea’s total caseload to 42,766 infections with 580 deaths.

The East Asian country was praised for its earlier success in containing COVID-19 without a lockdown by relying heavily on contact-tracing and testing.

But Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Saturday said further tightening physical distancing restriction to the nation’s highest level would be inevitable if the third wave of infections continued.

Greater Seoul is currently under level 2.5 restrictions, with nightclubs closed and restaurants allowed to provide only deliveries and takeouts after 9pm. Raising curbs to 3, the highest of the five levels, would require schools to switch to remote learning, allow only essential workers in offices and ban gatherings of more than 10 people.

Workers make a temporary hospital ward outside the Seoul Medical Center in Seoul, South Korea, December 10, 2020 [Heo Ran/ Reuters]

On Saturday, South Korea reported 950 new infections, prompting President Moon Jae-in to order the mobilisation of police, military personnel and public medical doctors to support contact tracing and keep track of infections.

“We will consider this as an emergency situation and put all-out efforts in a short period of time, using all available administrative ability,” he said in a message posted on Twitter.

Moon apologised for his government’s failure to contain the outbreak despite months of measures that hurt the economy. He also pleaded for vigilance, saying the country was going through its “last crisis before the arrival of vaccines and treatment”.

The South Korean government has already secured access to vaccines for 88 percent of its population, or 44 million people, with the first doses set to arrive in March.

The latest wave – South Korea’s worst since the pandemic began – has rekindled concerns about an acute shortage of hospital beds, and authorities in the capital, Seoul, have begun installing container beds for the first time.

They also plan to ramp up testing by opening temporary centres at 150 locations in the Greater Seoul area, which is home to half the country’s 52 million people.

Antigen tests and another form of rapid testing based on saliva samples will also be available at designated sites free of charge and regardless of whether people are symptomatic.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies