A COVID-19 infection cluster that so far numbers 17 cases emerged at one of the country’s biggest general hospitals in Seoul on Thursday, as health authorities struggle to bring the number of infections nationwide below 100 per day.
Korea reported 155 new COVID-19 cases Thursday -- 141 locally transmitted and 14 imported, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The total caseload rose to 21,743.
Seventeen people from Severance Hospital’s rehabilitation center in western Seoul -- including inpatients, nurses and care workers -- were confirmed to be infected as of Thursday afternoon, according to the tally from the Seoul Metropolitan Government. This followed the COVID-19 diagnoses of two workers at the rehabilitation ward on Wednesday. The entire hospital ward was put into lockdown for an epidemiological study, with COVID-19 testing underway for 127 inpatients and employees, according to the KCDC.
Thursday marks the eighth consecutive day that the country’s daily count of new coronavirus cases stayed below 200 since the resurgence of COVID-19 in the Seoul metropolitan area triggered by a Seoul-based church and a massive rally held Aug. 15.
The daily tally has gradually declined with heightened social distancing rules in place since reaching a second peak of 441 on Aug. 27, but more slowly than authorities expected. Korea posted a triple-digit rise for the 28th day on Thursday.
Despite the number of infections having fallen to the 100 range, authorities are on alert because the downward trend is not steady and more than 20 percent of the cases for the past two weeks have had unidentified transmission routes. Small-scale outbreaks also continue to be discovered.
In the Seoul metropolitan area, only Incheon has shown a steady slowdown in infections.
Transmission routes were unidentified for 22.9 percent of new cases reported from Aug. 28-Sept. 10, according to the KCDC.
Amid mixed opinions on whether the coronavirus situation is stable enough that social distancing rules can be loosened, the government is to make the decision on whether to extend or end the current level of social distancing at the end of this week.
“Level 2.5” social distancing rules are in place until Sunday in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province -- collectively home to nearly half of the country’s population -- and Level 2 social distancing rules are in place nationwide until Sept. 20.
Under the tightened social distancing rules, residents in the Seoul metropolitan area moved 20.5 percent less during the weekend than a week earlier, according to data compiled by mobile carriers.
The upcoming Chuseok holiday, which runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4 this year, poses a headache for authorities, as more people are expected to travel across the country to meet family and the increased movement of people could lead to a surge in infections. Chuseok is one of the country’s biggest traditional holidays, when extended families gather and pay their respects to their ancestors.
While authorities continue to appeal to the public to refrain from visiting their families this year and to hold rituals virtually, calls are also growing for official measures to restrict the movement of people during the Chuseok holiday.
Some 71.3 percent of respondents were in favor of imposing restrictions on people’s movements due to the risk of spreading the virus further, according to a survey conducted Wednesday by local pollster Realmeter with 500 people. Only 18.9 percent opposed restrictions.
The authorities earlier said they were not considering enforcing travel restrictions within the country, citing a lack of legal grounds.
Of Thursday’s locally transmitted cases, the vast majority were still registered in the Seoul metropolitan area -- 46 in Seoul, five in neighboring Incheon and 47 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital.
Outside the Seoul metropolitan area, COVID-19 cases were reported from all administrative cities and provinces except Sejong.
Of the 14 imported cases, 10 were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other four detected during the quarantine screening process at the border. Nine came from elsewhere in Asia, with two from the United States, one from Ecuador and one each from Kenya and Australia. Seven of the imported cases were of foreign nationals.
The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition rose to 169 as of midnight Thursday, up 15 from the previous day. It marks a sharp increase from only nine on Aug. 18.
Two more people died of the coronavirus, bringing the death toll to 346. The overall fatality rate sits at 1.59 percent. Some 97 percent of those who died had preexisting illnesses.
So far, of the 21,743 people confirmed to have the new coronavirus, 17,360 have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 337 from a day earlier. Some 4,073 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine.
The country has carried out 2,099,591 tests since Jan. 3, with 33,018 people awaiting results as of Thursday.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org