South Korea’s health authorities said Thursday that the tightened social distancing campaign appears to be paying off, slowing the coroanvirus’s spread to fewer than 200 new infections per day. Still, a spike in the number of critically ill patients remains a major concern, they said.
The country reported 195 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, posting fewer than 200 for the first time in more than two weeks. Some 188 of the new cases were locally transmitted and seven imported, while the total accumulated caseload was 20,644, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the country put in place unprecedentedly tight social distancing rules amid a resurgence of the coronavirus in the Seoul metropolitan area, Korea’s daily new COVID-19 case count stayed below 300 for the fifth consecutive day on Thursday.
“We expect to see the additional effect of the tightened Level 2 social distancing campaign after this weekend,” KCDC’s deputy director Kwon Jun-wook said at a briefing Thursday, thanking the Korean people for actively and voluntarily participating in the government’s quarantine efforts.
The level of social distancing in the Seoul metropolitan area was raised to Level 2 on Aug. 16 and to Level 2.5 on Aug. 30 as the coronavirus spread rapidly across the country. The Level 2.5 social distancing campaign led to the shutdown of indoor sports facilities and to slashed hours of operation at restaurants, bars and cafes.
“But there are still cases sporadically reported from religious facilities and small gatherings, as well as medical institutions, welfare facilities and nursing homes,” he said, calling the current situation “precarious.”
The health authorities have the epidemiological capacity to cope with about 100 new COVID-19 cases per day, he added.
Residents in the Seoul metropolitan area moved around 25 percent less over the last weekend from Aug. 29-30 under the stricter social distancing guidelines in place, compared with a week earlier from Aug. 15-16, according to a government analysis based on data provided by cellphone carriers.
The government launched discussions on whether to extend or end the current Level 2 social distancing rules, with the decision to be announced around the weekend.
Despite a fall in the daily tally of COVID-19 cases, the authorities are still on alert over surges in the number of patients with severe cases or unclear infection routes, as well as the sporadic virus outbreaks popping up across the country.
The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition hit a record high of 154 as of midnight Thursday, up 31 from a day earlier, raising concerns over a possible shortage of hospital beds. This marks a sharp rise from only nine people on Aug. 18.
The majority of the critically ill patients are in their 60s or over -- 24 percent in their 80s, 40.9 percent in their 70s and 20.1 percent in their 60s -- and therefore are more vulnerable to the virus, sparking fears over a surge in fatalities.
Only 43 hospital beds were available for critically ill patients nationwide as of Wednesday. There were no beds left in Gyeonggi Province, only nine in Seoul and one in Incheon.
Transmission routes were unidentified for 24.4 percent of the new cases reported from Aug. 21-Sept. 3, according to the KCDC, which could mean the virus is being spread silently.
Another cluster of infections was found at a kimchi manufacturing factory in Cheongyang-gun, South Chungcheong Province. Since the initial patient tested positive Wednesday, 19 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
While some 50 tons of kimchi manufactured at the factory and distributed across the country were to be recalled and discarded, the KCDC vice director ruled out the possibility of the virus spreading through food.
COVID-19 cases linked to the Sarang Jeil Church and to a massive rally held in central Seoul on Aug. 15, which are at the center of the second wave of COVID-19 here, rose to 1,139 and 462, respectively, as of Thursday at noon.
Of the locally transmitted cases, the vast majority were still registered in the Seoul metropolitan area -- 69 in Seoul, 15 in neighboring Incheon and 64 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital.
Outside the Seoul metropolitan area, seven new cases were reported in Ulsan and South Chungcheong Province, respectively, six in Gwangju, five in South Jeolla Province, four each in Busan, Daejeon and Gangwon Province, two in Daegu and one in North Chungcheong Province.
Of the seven imported cases, four were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other three detected during the quarantine screening process at the border. Three cases originated in the United States, two cases in Asia and one case each in Africa and in Europe. Four of the newly diagnosed people were foreign nationals.
Fears over the spread of the coronavirus led to a closure of a record-breaking 8,245 schools across the country as of Thursday, up 156 from a day earlier, according to the Ministry of Education.
So far, 15,529 people, or 75.22 percent, have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 173 from a day earlier. Some 4,786 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine.
Three more people died of the coronavirus, bringing the death toll to 329. The overall fatality rate amounted to 1.59 percent. The fatality rate was 20.07 percent for those in their 80s, 6.36 percent in their 70s and 1.36 percent in their 60s. Some 97.3 percent of those who died had preexisting illnesses.
The country has carried out 2,000,552 tests since Jan. 3, with 55,524 people awaiting results as of Thursday.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)