S Korean minister warns of virus ‘war zone’

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) – South Korea’s health minister said yesterday that the Seoul metropolitan area is now a “COVID-19 war zone,” as the country reported another 615 new infections and the virus appeared to be spreading faster.

The president, meanwhile, issued a call to expand testing and contact tracing.

The country has recorded more than 5,300 new infections in the past 10 days and yesterday was the 30th day in a row of triple-digit daily jumps. Most cases have come from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, where half of South Korea’s 51 million people live. With people increasingly venturing out in public and spending longer hours indoors amid cold temperatures, health workers have struggled to stem transmissions tied to restaurants, saunas, schools, hospitals and long-term care facilities.

“The capital area is now a COVID-19 war zone,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said in a virus meeting, asking for citizen vigilance.

He said the country may have to increase social distancing to prevent the resurgence in the capital area from “exploding into a major outbreak nationwide and collapsing the healthcare system.”

Na Seong-woong, a senior official from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, told reporters the country could be reporting around 900 new infections a day next week if it fails to slow the virus quickly.

Medical workers carry a patient infected with the coronavirus onto an ambulance at an elderly care facility in Ulsan, South Korea. PHOTO: AP

While South Korea managed to contain a major outbreak in its southeastern region in spring by channeling nationwide health resources and personnel, it’s less clear where the reinforcements will come if the virus wreaks havoc in the Seoul area.

While President Moon Jae-in’s government had been eager to tout the country’s previous gains against the virus, there’s criticism that it gambled on its own success by moving quickly to ease social distancing restrictions to the lowest level in October even as the virus was still spreading.

Officials have moved to restore some distancing restrictions in the Seoul area in recent weeks, shutting down karaoke rooms and gyms, reducing in-person school classes and allowing restaurants to provide only delivery and take-out after 9pm

City officials in Seoul have also reduced public transportation after 9pm to discourage unnecessary gatherings, although some say the move might backfire by making buses and subways more packed.