South Korea has reported its biggest spike in new coronavirus cases in nearly two months, raising fears of a second wave of disease in a country widely praised for containing the initial outbreak.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) announced 79 new cases on Thursday, saying 67 of the new infections were in the Seoul metropolitan area, where about half of South Korea’s 51 million people live.
It was the third straight day of rising infections and the largest increase since April 5, when authorities announced 81 cases.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo pleaded for all residents in the greater capital area to avoid unnecessary gatherings and urged companies to keep sick employees off work. He said at least 69 cases this week have been linked to a cluster of infections at a logistics facility operated by Coupang, one of the country’s largest online shopping firms, in Bucheon, west of Seoul.
Kim Gang-lip, the vice health minister, said around 4,100 workers and visitors to the building were under self-isolation, with more than 80 percent tested so far. “We are expecting the number of new cases linked to the warehouse to continue rising until today as we wrap up related tests,” he told reporters.
According to the KCDC, the new cases brought the country’s total as of midnight on Wednesday to 11,344 with 269 deaths.
South Korea’s robust programme of testing earlier this year was credited with helping keep the number of deaths comparatively low in a global pandemic that has now killed more than 350,000 people. And unlike many countries, South Korea did not impose a strict lockdown to control the new virus.
But Yonhap news agency said this week’s surge in new infections has put South Korea’s fight against the virus “in trouble”.
The warehouse cluster appears linked to an outbreak that emerged in several Seoul nightclubs and bars in early May, according to the KCDC, and comes as the country seeks to ease social distancing rules, reopen schools, and keep new infections in check.
KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said the country may need to reimpose social distancing restrictions, saying it was becoming increasingly difficult for health workers to track transmissions amid increasing public activity.
“The number of people or locations we have to trace are increasing geometrically,” she said during a briefing on Wednesday afternoon.
“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures, but there’s a limit to such efforts. There’s a need to maximise social distancing in areas where the virus is circulating, to force people to avoid public facilities and other crowded spaces.”
Health officials said on Thursday they would be conducting on-site inspections of logistics centres across the country, to develop better policies for preventing outbreaks at such facilities.
Coupang, backed by Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank Group, said it closed the Bucheon facility on Monday. It said on Thursday it had also closed a separate facility in Goyang, in the Seoul suburbs, after an employee there tested positive.
“As soon as the employee’s diagnosis was confirmed, Coupang sent home and self-quarantined employees who had contact with the employee,” the company said in a statement.
The spreading outbreak and warehouse closures come as Coupang and other e-commerce firms scramble to keep up with a surge in orders as more people opted to shop from home during the coronavirus outbreak, despite the absence of a strict lockdown.
In February, March and April, sales of South Korean online retailers including Coupang jumped 34 percent, 17 percent and again 17 percent, respectively, from the same months a year ago, according to trade ministry data.