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(3rd LD) New virus cases reach 5-month high, guidelines toughened for Seoul, Gyeonggi area

National 13:15 August 15, 2020

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES with more details throughout)

SEOUL, Aug. 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Saturday placed stricter social distancing guidelines on the greater Seoul area after daily new COVID-19 cases in the country reached a five-month high of 166, as transmissions in and around the capital continue to spread at an alarming rate.

The decision to raise the social distancing plan in Seoul and the Gyeonggi region up one notch to "level 2" was reached at a pan-governmental COVID-19 meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, chaired by Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun.

The move comes as the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported that new daily coronavirus cases reached 166 as of midnight Friday, raising the total caseload to 15,039.

The number of new cases was the most since March 11, when the country reported 242 new daily infections during the height of a mass outbreak in Daegu and a cluster originating from a call center building in Seoul.

Of the new cases, 155 were local transmissions. The number of daily infections reached triple digits for the second straight day.

Public officials disinfect a church in Seoul's Seongbuk Ward on Aug. 14, 2020, following the detection of a cluster of new coronavirus infections at the church. (Yonhap)

In June, the country adopted a three-tier social distancing scheme that adjusts the intensity of virus prevention guidelines depending on the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The country as a whole has been on "Level 1" social distancing since May 6, which allows citizens to carry out their economic and social activities under quarantine rules.

However, due to a resurgence of virus cases in recent days, there have been growing calls that the country should raise its social distancing level.

The number of new cases has shown a dramatic increase during the week, with new daily confirmed cases nearly doubling from 28 on Monday to 54 reported on Wednesday, with people testing positive for the virus reaching triple digits Friday.

The KCDC has warned that the greater Seoul area is teetering on the brink of another spike in virus cases and that the easing of social distancing guidance may be rolled back if the upward trend continues.

Of the new locally transmitted cases, 72 were reported in Seoul and 67 from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province.

Sporadic cluster infections have shown no signs of a let-up, with most cases traced to churches in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province.

Infections tied to a church in Yongin, south of Seoul, reached 72 as of noon Friday, up 60 from the previous day.

Cases linked to a church in northern Seoul rose by 14 to 19. The Seoul metropolitan government ordered the temporary shutdown of the church, with health authorities conducting virus tests on 1,897 people.

It was also reported that 31 residents in a town in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi Province, were also infected with COVID-19.

The latest spikes in cases in those areas put local governments on high alert. They ordered restrictions on gatherings and activities at religious facilities to contain the further spread of the virus.

On Friday, the Seoul city government said it decided to place tougher restrictions on gatherings at around 7,500 religious facilities, including churches and Buddhist temples.

Face-to-face events, provisions of food and group eating will be prohibited at those facilities. During regular services at churches, the singing of hymns will be restricted while collective prayer will be banned.

The Gyeonggi provincial government also raised the level of social distancing by restricting gatherings at churches and other religious facilities.

Students line up to take coronavirus tests at a screening center in Ulsan, 414 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Aug. 13, 2020, after a middle school student in the city tested positive for COVID-19. (Yonhap)

odissy@yna.co.kr
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