Seoul surge appears to spread around South Korea

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) — South Korea added its most new virus cases in months yesterday, driven by a surge around the capital that appears to be spreading nationwide.

The 324 new infections was its highest single day total since early March and the eighth consecutive triple-digit daily increase.

Most of the people recently infected live in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan region, where health workers are scrambling to track transmissions from several sources, including churches, restaurants, schools and workers.

But the new infections reported yesterday were from practically all of South Korea’s major cities, including Busan, Gwangju, Daejeon, Sejong and Daegu, the southeastern city that was the epicentre of a massive outbreak in late February and March.

The newest figures reported by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) brought the nation’s caseload to 16,670, including 309 deaths.

Health authorities had managed to contain the virus in the Daegu region by April, ramping up tests and extensively using mobile phone location data, credit-card records and security camera footage to trace and isolate contacts, which allowed the country to weather the outbreak without placing meaningful restrictions on its economy.

Visitors wearing face masks at the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, South Korea. PHOTO: AP

Another factor was that the narrowness of the Daegu outbreak effectively aided its containment. It’s unclear whether South Korea’s previous formula of success would be as effective since the Seoul region has many more people and new clusters are occurring in varied places as people increasingly venture out in public.

KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said the government should consider stronger distancing measures — possibly including banning gatherings of over 10 people, shutting schools, halting professional sports and advising companies to have employees work from home — if the virus’s spread doesn’t slow after the weekend.

Jeong said country is now conducting 50,000 tests per day, compared to around 20,000 per day during the Daegu outbreak, while fighting what she described as the country’s biggest crisis since the emergence of COVID-19.

She said 732 infections confirmed as of yesterday were linked to members of a northern Seoul church. Sarang Jeil Church pastor Jun Kwang-hun was hospitalised with COVID-19 on Monday after participating in an anti-government protest last week where he shared a microphone on stage with other activists.

Health workers have used location data provided by mobile phone carriers to identify some 15,000 people who spent over 30 minutes on the streets where the protests took place and are alerting them to get tested. At least 71 infections have been linked to the protests.

India’s coronavirus caseload crosses 2.9 million with a surge of 68,898 in the past 24 hours. The Health Ministry yesterday also reported 983 more deaths, taking total fatalities to 54,849.

India has been recording at least 50,000 new infections per day since mid-July. Four of India’s 28 states now account for 63 per cent of fatalities and 54.6 per cent of cases. Western Maharashtra state and three southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are the worst-hit.

The Health Ministry said over 900,000 tests are being done and the rate of tests that are positive for the virus is averaging eight per cent, but it will be lowered through isolation, tracking and clinical management.

The governor of Iwate in northern Japan said the national government’s ‘Go To’ travel campaign should be considered “a failure”, noting the growing number of coronavirus cases. “To start it in July was a bit too soon as preparations weren’t complete. It was carried out too soon, and so I think it can be called a failure,” Governor Takuya Tasso told reporters.

Iwate had zero COVID-19 cases until a month ago and its 11 cases since are still the lowest among Japan’s prefectures. Tasso said factors for the area’s success included its low population congestion, limited travel and people’s awareness of crisis management after Iwate was devastated by the 2011 tsunami. The ‘Go To’ campaign promoted travel to areas of the country except Tokyo to help the badly hit tourism industry.