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(LEAD) Rising virus cases in capital area put authorities on edge

National 17:18 April 06, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS more info in last 2 paras)

SEOUL, April 6 (Yonhap) -- A continued rise in new virus cases in the capital Seoul and its surrounding areas is a wake-up call for health authorities, as the regions are home to half of the country's population, though daily new infections in the country are falling.

The total number of COVID-19 cases identified in Seoul, the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, a port city just west of Seoul, has topped 1,200, according to data from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

Seoul reported 11 new cases Monday, bringing its total to 563, while its surrounding Gyeonggi Province added eight more cases to 580. Incheon reported one additional case, raising its tally to 80.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Seoul and the surrounding areas make up about 12 percent of the country's total 10,284 cases. Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province -- the epicenters of the virus outbreak here -- still account for nearly 80 percent of the total.

However, virus cases in the capital area have accounted for roughly 45 percent of the country's daily new infections in the last five days.

Virus cases in the capital area could spark another wave of mass infections, and community spread may accelerate if health authorities fail to control infections at hospitals, experts warned.

This photo, taken on March 31, 2020, shows an entrance of Asan Medical Center in Seoul, where a coronavirus-infected patient has been reported. (Yonhap)

"The number of COVID-19 cases in the Seoul metropolitan area continues to move upward and it could explode if the country's daily number of new cases continues to hover around 100," said Jung Ki-suck, a doctor at Hallym University Sacred Heart Hospital and former head of the KCDC. "In New York, it took some time to see the number of COVID-19 cases reach 10,000, but it spiked to 100,000 rapidly."

Experts pointed out it will also be difficult to supply additional medical supplies if the capital area suffers from mass infections, like those in Daegu and the surrounding North Gyeongsang Province.

"If there are mass infections in other regions, those in the capital area send medical staff and lend essential medical supplies," said Chun Byung-Chul, an epidemiologist at Korea University. "But if the capital area reports mass infections, other regions cannot help because they do not have enough medical capacity."

Health authorities should especially keep an eye on nursing hospitals and senior care centers in the capital area, as virus infections there could be fatal, the experts said.

This photo, taken on April 5, 2020, shows medical workers at St. Mary's Hospital in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul. (Yonhap)

About half of South Korea's COVID-19 deaths were patients aged 80 or older, with the fatality rate of that age group reaching nearly 20 percent, according to the KCDC.

The government said it will designate quarantine officials to senior care facilities and monitor whether people there show virus symptoms.

"A large number of the country's nursing hospitals are located in the capital area, and they may not have figured out who has contracted the virus or not," said Ki Mo-ran, a doctor who leads the Korean Society for Preventive Medicine's COVID-19 task force.

The health authorities said they are considering conducting virus tests on people at nursing hospitals, but its priority is identifying cases that have unclear infection routes.

As of Sunday, state-designated infectious disease treatment hospitals in the capital area had 1,771 beds, with 1,016 of them currently available for use. They also had 73 beds for COVID-19 patients in severe condition, with only nine of them currently empty, according to the health authorities.

For patients with mild symptoms, the health authorities said that the virus treatment centers in the capital area have capacity to house more than 200 people.


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