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(5th LD) S. Korea warns of upping virus restrictions; citizens urged to observe strict measures

All News 22:03 August 24, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS more info in last two paras)

SEOUL, Aug. 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korea warned on Monday of raising social distancing restrictions if the latest wave of new coronavirus outbreaks does not subside, urging people to strictly abide by anti-virus measures currently in place, as the country's daily new virus cases sharply slowed.

The number of additional new coronavirus cases here sharply slowed to below 300, but the country is still bogged down with a series of cluster infections continuing in the greater Seoul area and other major cities.

Of the 266 new COVID-19 cases, 258 were locally transmitted, raising the total caseload to 17,665, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

Monday's daily tally marks a sharp slowdown from the 397 newly identified cases the previous day, but fewer virus tests over the weekend might have dragged down the number of new cases.

On Sunday, a total of 13,236 virus tests were conducted, compared to 15,386 tests on Saturday and 21,677 tests on Friday. On Thursday, 20,040 tests were carried out.

A medical staff member takes a short break at a public health clinic located in southern Seoul on Aug. 24, 2020. (Yonhap)

A medical staff member takes a short break at a public health clinic located in southern Seoul on Aug. 24, 2020. (Yonhap)

Since Aug. 14, the country's daily virus cases have been in triple digits, as sporadic clusters in the greater Seoul area piled up, mostly traced to a conservative protestant church in Seoul and an anti-government march on Liberation Day on Aug. 15.

Over the past 11 days, a whopping 2,893 new cases across the nation were identified.

"The COVID-19 virus became an immediate threat, and nobody is insulated from the risk of contagion," KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said in a daily briefing. "We need to break the chain transmission (of the virus), but we can reduce virus contagion if we follow strict social distancing."

The KCDC chief said the government is closely studying whether to raise social distancing restrictions to the highest level.

Health Minister Park Neunghoo also said during a parliamentary session that the government will inevitably review adopting the highest social distancing scheme in the greater Seoul area if the virus curve does not flatten this week.

Amid grim prospects of a nationwide epidemic, the government decided to impose the Level 2 social distancing scheme outside the wider Seoul area starting Sunday.

Indoor meetings of more than 50 people and open-air gatherings of over 100 people are banned in principle. So-called risk-prone facilities, including karaoke rooms, clubs, PC cafes and buffets, have been ordered to shut down.

Starting Monday, Seoul residents must also wear masks and face coverings at all times in public, except when they are eating or drinking.

The city already banned protests of more than 10 participants, with Incheon issuing the same measure on Monday.

A medical staff member works at Severance Hospital in western Seoul on Aug. 24, 2020. (Yonhap)

A medical staff member works at Severance Hospital in western Seoul on Aug. 24, 2020. (Yonhap)

The latest uptick in the number of new infections has set alarm bells ringing, as they were mostly reported from Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province, home to half of the country's 51 million people.

Of the local infections, the capital city reported 97 new cases, and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province took up 84.

Incheon, located west of Seoul, reported 20 new cases, and the central city of Daejeon added 10 new infections.

The Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, a hotbed of the recent spike in new infections, has reported a total of 875 COVID-19 cases as of Monday, up 34 from the previous day.

The Seoul metropolitan government said that 21.7 percent of the church members tested in the capital were confirmed to have been infected with the virus.

New virus cases traced to the church have also been reported from multiple office buildings, day care centers, cram schools and medical institutions, where the church members visited.

A total of 176 patients were reported from an anti-government rally held on Aug. 15 in central Seoul, up 40 from a day earlier. A large number of Sarang Jeil Church members, including its pastor who was also infected with the virus, took part in the rally.

The figure also includes seven police officers who were deployed at the protest.

Other church-linked cluster infections continued to grow as well, with 182 tied to Woori Jeil Church in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, and 41 to Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul.

A mother holding her child waits to receive new coronavirus tests at an elementary school in Hwasun, 343 kilometers south of Seoul, on Aug. 24, 2020. (Yonhap)

A mother holding her child waits to receive new coronavirus tests at an elementary school in Hwasun, 343 kilometers south of Seoul, on Aug. 24, 2020. (Yonhap)

Some critics linked the government's designation of Aug. 17 as a temporary national holiday to a recent rise in new cases. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun admitted that the designation, intended to help allay people's weariness from the pandemic, did not help the quarantine efforts "after all."

"In that respect, I think it was very unfortunate," Chung said during a parliamentary session.

The highest anti-virus curbs can be issued when the number of daily virus cases reaches a two-week average of 100-200 and the doubling of new COVID-19 cases occurs more than twice a week.

With the current level of measures already being the toughest restrictions for South Korea, which reported its first case on Jan. 20, tighter measures are expected to come at a high price in terms of the economy.

The number of imported cases came to just eight. Of them, three were from Russia, and two were from Ukraine. There were also cases from the United States, Bangladesh and India.

In the daily tally, South Korea logged no new fatalities, with the death toll remaining at 309, the KCDC said. The fatality rate came to 1.75 percent.

Later in the day, however, a 89-year-old COVID-19 patient, a resident of Boeun County, some 180 kilometers south of Seoul, died at 6:50 p.m., after having tested positive the previous day.

The patient, who had suffered from hypertension and lung illness, did not show any symptoms when testing positive, according to reports.

The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 14,219, up 19 from the previous day. This indicates slightly more than 80 percent of the patients reported here have been cured.

Over the past two weeks, patients aged 60 and above accounted for 31.7 percent of newly added cases. Those in their 20s and 30s took up 25.2 percent, according to the KCDC.

South Korea has carried out 1,804,422 tests since Jan. 3.

Concerning the authorization of emergency use of blood plasma to treat COVID-19 patients by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, health authorities said the country plans to mass-produce such treatments when safety is verified.

Blood plasma, taken from patients who have recovered from the new coronavirus, is rich in antibodies and thus may help people battling the disease.

Prime Minister Chung said that South Korea is currently employing a "two-track" approach seeking to both develop COVID-19 treatment domestically and secure it from overseas.

"We are assiduously pushing to develop (treatment) so that we do not fall behind internationally," he said during the parliamentary session.

"I think that perhaps, we would be able to unveil treatment within this year," he added.


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