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Seoul stumped on social distancing decision

South Korea agonizes over whether to extend Level 2.5 distancing rules as new daily COVID-19 cases remain in the 100s

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

The government appears to be stuck over whether to extend the current level of tightened social distancing as daily coronavirus cases remain in the triple digits, and untraceable cases and sporadic clusters of infections weigh on its virus containment efforts.

South Korea reported 176 new COVID-19 cases Friday -- 161 locally transmitted and 15 imported, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Friday that the government will announce a decision on whether to extend or end the current level of social distancing over the weekend after closely watching the situation and consulting experts.

“Given so many are making sacrifices (to comply with the policy), restrictions should be eased as soon as possible, but I am also worried that a hasty relaxation could lead to a resurgence of the virus so that people end up suffering more,” he said Friday at a pan-government meeting on the country’s COVID-19 response.

As the stricter social distancing rules has dealt a blow to local businesses and caused inconvenience to the public, Sohn Young-rae, a senior official from the Health and Welfare Ministry, hinted at the possibility of choosing an option other than extending the “Level 2.5” social distancing.

Under the “Level 2.5” social distancing campaign, which is in place until Sunday in Seoul and the surrounding areas, operating hours were slashed for restaurants, bakeries and bars, with only takeout and delivery services allowed after 9 p.m. Dining in was banned at franchise coffee chains, bakeries and ice cream shops, with only takeaway and delivery services allowed. Private cram schools and indoor sports facilities were shut down.

In other parts of the country, less strict “Level 2” social distancing rules, under which gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors as well as operations of high-risk facilities are banned, are in place until Sept. 20.

Friday marked the ninth consecutive day that the country’s daily count of new coronavirus cases was in the 100 range since the resurgence of COVID-19 in the Seoul metropolitan area triggered by a Seoul-based church and a massive rally on Aug. 15. The number of new cases reached a summer peak of 441 on Aug. 27.

Although a gradual slowdown in new infections has followed the tighter distancing rules, the daily tally has not yet fallen below 100 as authorities had hoped. Korea posted triple-digit numbers of new cases for the 29th straight day on Friday.

Health authorities are concerned about cases with unidentified transmission routes, which could mean a silent spread of the virus, and new small-scale outbreaks in the Seoul metropolitan area.

Transmission routes were unidentified for 23.4 percent of new cases reported from Aug. 29-Sept. 11, according to the KCDC.

New clusters of infections are being traced to various sites including offices, call centers, religious facilities, sales events, hospitals and nursing homes and logistics centers

A total of 23 people tested positive for the coronavirus in a cluster at Severance Hospital, one of the biggest general hospitals in Seoul, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government. The first case was reported Wednesday, involving an employee at the hospital. Some of the confirmed patients went to work at the hospital despite having symptoms, an official from the city government said.

Of Friday’s locally transmitted cases, the vast majority were still registered in the Seoul metropolitan area -- 61 in Seoul, eight 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, Gangwon Province, North Jeolla Province and South Gyeongsang Province.

Of the 15 imported cases, six were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other nine detected during the quarantine screening process at the border. Ten came from Asia, one from the United States, three from Australia and one from the Solomon Islands. Eleven of these imported cases were in foreign nationals.

The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition rose to 175 as of midnight Friday, up 6 from the previous day. Nearly 88 percent of them are in their 60s or over.

Four more people died of the coronavirus, bringing the death toll to 350. The overall fatality rate sits at 1.6 percent.

So far, of 21,919 people confirmed to have the new coronavirus, 17,616 have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 256 from a day earlier. Some 3,953 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine.

The country has carried out 2,119,211 tests since Jan. 3, with 29,423 people awaiting results as of Friday.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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