Virus surge makes S Korean lockdown more likely

SEOUL (AP) — South Korea reported 441 new cases of the coronavirus yesterday, its highest single-day total in months, making lockdown-like restrictions look inevitable as transmissions slip out of control.

The country has added nearly 4,000 infections while reporting triple-digit daily jumps on each of the past 14 days, prompting health experts to warn about hospitals possibly running out of capacity.

The 441 cases reported yesterday was the biggest daily increase since the 483 reported on March 7. South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 315 of the new cases were from the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people, where health workers have struggled to track infections linked to various sources including churches, restaurants, schools and workers.

Infections were also reported in major cities and provincial towns around the country, including Gwangju, Busan, Daejeon and Daegu, a southeastern city that was the epicentre of a massive outbreak in late February and March that was stabilised by April.

Health officials have described the outbreak over the past two weeks as the country’s biggest crisis since the emergence of COVID-19. While the outbreak in the Daegu region was mostly tied to a single religious congregation, health workers are having more difficulty tracking transmissions in the much more populated capital area.

People wearing face masks to help protect against the spread of the coronavirus cross a road in Seoul. PHOTO: AP

After resisting such steps for months out of economic concerns, the country has stepped up social distancing restrictions nationwide, banning large gatherings, shutting religious gatherings and nightspots, removing fans from professional sports and shifting most schools back to remote learning.

If the viral spread doesn’t slow, health authorities have said they will consider elevating social distancing measures to the strongest ‘Level 3,’ which could include banning gatherings of more than 10 people and advising private companies to have their employees work from home.

Such steps, designed to allow for only essential economic and social activities, may significantly hurt an already weak economy, officials said.

Elsewhere, India recorded its highest single-day increase with 75,760 new coronavirus cases as it ramps up testing, raising the country’s total virus tally to over 3.3 million. The Health Ministry yesterday also reported 1,023 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking total fatalities up to 60,472. India has been recording more than 60,000 new infections per day for the last two weeks. With more than 800,000 average tests every day, India has scaled up testing per million to more than 27,000, the ministry said.

North Korea told the World Health Organization (WHO) it has tested 2,767 people for the coronavirus as of August 20 and all have tested negative. In an e-mail to The Associated Press, WHO’s representative to North Korea Edwin Salvador said the country is monitoring 1,004 citizens under quarantine. Salvador said North Korea told WHO it has released 29,961 people from quarantine, including 382 foreigners. It said it has not confirmed any cases of COVID-19, but outsiders doubt its virus-free claim. North Korea announced a lockdown of a border city in July after reporting a person had COVID-19 symptoms. Salvador said WHO has yet to receive details about the suspected case. He said North Korea’s borders remain closed, except for COVID-19-related shipments through the Sinuiju-Dandong crossing on its border with China.

Australia’s coronavirus hot spot, Victoria state, recorded its third deadliest day of the pandemic as well as the lowest tally of new infections in more than eight weeks. The 23 deaths followed 24 on Wednesday. Victoria’s Health Department said 22 of the most recent deaths were related to aged care. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said eight per cent of Australia’s aged care homes had residents or staff infected with the virus. He said the outcomes in four Melbourne aged care homes were “unacceptable.” Those four were “acutely effected,” he said. “My fear when the COVID pandemic hit in Victoria was that we could have potentially seen far more.” The 113 new cases reported yesterday was the lowest count since July 5.