By Joo Kyung-don
SEOUL, Aug. 25 (Yonhap) -- The rapid spread of the new coronavirus across South Korea and the increasing number of cases with unknown infection routes are raising the need to increase the country's anti-virus curbs to the highest.
Over the past 12 days, a whopping 3,175 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed here, with infections reported in all of the nation's 17 provinces and municipalities, according to data from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
A flare-up in virus cases in the greater Seoul area, home to half of the country's population, along with sporadic cluster infections in major cities, sparked concerns about the nationwide spread of COVID-19.
So far, 915 cases have been traced to the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul. The outbreak there led to infections at 22 locations, with 58 cases identified in nine different regions outside the capital area.
In June, the country adopted a three-tier social distancing scheme that depends on the severity of COVID-19 outbreaks.
The country is currently in the Level 2 mode. Health authorities first applied Level 2 social distancing in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province on Aug. 16. The western port city of Incheon was put under the measures three days later before expanding the scheme nationwide on Sunday.
Under the Level 2 distancing, indoor gatherings of 50 or more people and outdoor gatherings of 100 or more people are strictly restricted. Sports events must be held without crowds, while facilities with high infection risks, such as bars and internet cafes, have to suspend their businesses.
The government also banned in-person church services.
But since the country is already in great danger of facing another COVID-19 wave, experts said that Level 2 distancing is not enough.
"Not only the number of daily COVID-19 cases but also data on infections with unknown transmission routes and the percentage of positive tests indicate that the country is at risk of seeing nationwide virus spread," said Kim Woo-joo, a professor for infectious diseases at Korea University in Seoul.
"Wearing masks and washing hands may not solve the problem, so there should be stricter measures that can limit people's movement."
Level 3 social distancing can be applied if the country's average daily rise in local virus infections stays above 100 over a two-week period. The doubling of new daily virus cases should also occur at least twice in a one-week period.
Since Aug. 14, the country's daily COVID-19 cases have been in the triple digits. Though the doubling of new daily virus cases did not occur, experts are worried about the increasing number of untraceable infections and critically ill COVID-19 patients.
Over the past two weeks, roughly 17 percent of the newly identified patients had unknown infection routes. In Seoul, of the 134 new cases reported on Tuesday, health authorities have yet to confirm infection routes of 60 cases.
The number of COVID-19 patients in critical condition has been rising steadily since Aug. 18. The figure was only nine on Aug. 18, but it jumped to 38 on Tuesday.
Health authorities said they are looking into options for applying Level 3 distancing carefully since the top-tier prevention measures could heavily undermine the country's social and economic activities.
"Moving to Level 3 means stoppage of our daily lives except for necessary social and economic activities," said Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health official. "It will be painful to our people and economy."
Under Level 3 social distancing, gatherings of 10 or more people are restricted. Not only high-risk facilities, such as clubs, but also mid-risk facilities, including cinemas, wedding halls and cafes, are advised to suspend their operations.
All sports events are banned, and public facilities are ordered to close. Schools are required to shift to remote learning and to stop holding in-person classes.
Experts said even if Level 3 distancing includes some draconian measures, it should be enforced immediately at least for the greater Seoul area
"I think the country should have applied the Level 3 distancing from last weekend," said Lee Jae-gap, a doctor at Hallym University Hospital.
"Some people worry about economy when the Level 3 measures are implemented, but we should think about it the other way. It will be better for the country's economy if we can raise the social distancing level and make a quick recovery."
According to a recent survey from pollster Realmeter, 55.9 percent of people answered that Level 3 distancing is a necessary step to stem the spread of the virus, while 40.1 percent said it should be decided carefully considering its social and economic impacts.
Some areas have already applied Level 3 measures in advance. The country's education ministry announced schools in the greater Seoul area are advised to return to full remote learning starting Wednesday.
"This week is the most critical time for us to determine whether we should move to Level 3 distancing," Health Minister Park Neunghoo said. "Currently, social distancing is the only vaccine that can protect us from the nationwide spread of the virus."
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