South Korea on Tuesday announced a record 40 deaths from COVID-19, as daily coronavirus cases rose to more than 1,000 again and the government moved to procure more vaccines.
The daily death toll – the highest since the country reported its first case of coronavirus in late January – comes amid a stubborn third wave of infections that have forced the authorities to tighten social-distancing measures, amid what the Yonhap news agency described as a “looming medical system crisis”.
The country added 1,046 more cases, including 1,030 local infections, raising the total caseload to 58,725, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
Daily cases have been hovering around the 1,000 mark since mid-November and nearly 80 percent of Tuesday’s cases were reported in Seoul and its surrounding areas. The total death toll from COVID-19 in South Korea stands at 859.
On Sunday, the KDCA extended current social-distancing measures in Seoul and the surrounding area until January 3. A decision on whether to move to the highest level of restrictions will be made in the next few days.
The government has been reluctant to impose stricter measures because of the effect on small business and has instead adopted a more targeted approach.
Gatherings of more than four people have been banned in greater Seoul since last Wednesday and in the rest of the country since last Thursday. Ski resorts and tourist attractions have also been closed to avoid large crowds during the year-end holidays.
The continued growth in cases has increased concerns about a shortage of hospital beds and treatment for the most seriously ill, prompting health authorities to issue a rare order to private hospitals to secure more intensive-care beds for COVID-19 patients. The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients stood at 330 on Tuesday, 35 more than the previous day, according to the KDCA.
The third wave has also added to pressure on the government over its vaccine procurement strategy, which some critics say has been too slow given that mass vaccination programmes are already under way in the United States and Europe.
On Tuesday, the presidential office announced that South Korea would receive sufficient doses from Moderna to vaccinate 20 million people starting in the second quarter of next year.
The deal was reached in a video conference between President Moon Jae-in and Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel, which took place on Monday.
South Korea said earlier it plans to secure enough doses to eventually vaccinate 46 million people or more than 85 percent of its population.
Last week, it announced deals with Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen and Pfizer to procure more vaccines.
It is also taking part in the World Health Organization’s COVAX programme and is buying the AstraZeneca vaccine that is expected to receive regulatory approval in the United Kingdom in the next few days.
The first jabs in South Korea, however, are only expected to take place in February, with medical workers and elderly residents the first in line to receive them.
Meanwhile, US Forces Korea (USFK), which includes about 28,500 members of the American military as well as their families and thousands of other workers, has administered the first vaccines to its “front-line health workers and first responders”, a USFK official said.
The US armed forces are using Moderna vaccines, which were sent to three military treatment facilities across US bases in South Korea on Monday. South Korea is one of four overseas locations in the Department of Defense’s initial phased distribution plan.