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(3rd LD) New virus cases bounce back to over 300, authorities still cautious over toughest virus curbs

All News 15:32 August 26, 2020

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead, para 2; ADDS details throughout; CHANGES photos)

SEOUL, Aug. 26 (Yonhap) -- The number of daily new coronavirus cases in South Korea spiked to over 300 on Wednesday, as sporadic cluster infections across the country, coupled with rising cases tied to churches, continued to build up.

But health authorities reiterated their earlier stance that they will decide whether to introduce the strongest virus restrictions after further vetting this week's number of cases.

The country reported 320 new COVID-19 cases, including 307 local infections, raising the total caseload to 18,265, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

South Korea reported 324 new cases Friday, followed by 332 and 397 infections on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

The number of new infections slightly fell to 266 cases and 280 cases on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, but experts say the decrease was also in part attributable to fewer COVID-19 tests being carried out over the weekend.

South Korea had been putting the virus spread under control until early August, when the daily new cases stayed in double-digit figures.

But the country reported 103 new cases on Aug. 14, jumping twofold from the previous day. Over the past 13 days, a whopping 3,495 new cases across the nation were identified, mostly tied to a conservative church in northern Seoul and the Aug. 15 Liberation Day rally.

A worker disinfects the government complex in central Seoul on Aug. 26, 2020. (Yonhap)

A worker disinfects the government complex in central Seoul on Aug. 26, 2020. (Yonhap)

Sporadic cluster infections clobbered the virus fight nationwide as well.

A growing portion of untraceable cases also poses a major challenge in the country's efforts to trace and stem further virus spread. Over the past two weeks, nearly 20 percent of newly added patients had unknown infection routes.

Of the locally transmitted cases, Seoul accounted for 110, and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province added 92 cases. The greater Seoul area is home to half of the country's 51 million people.

Other major cities reported additional infections. Incheon, just west of Seoul, reported 27 cases, and the central city of Daejeon added seven new cases.

Gangwon Province reported 18 new cases, and South Jeolla Province added 12 cases as well.

Cases tied to Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, a hotbed of the recent spike in new infections, have reached 933 as of Wednesday, up 18 from the previous day. Of the patients, 285 were infected despite not being affiliated with the church.

Patients aged 60 and above accounted for more than 40 percent.

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

A total of 219 cases were reported from the Aug. 15 demonstration in central Seoul, up 26 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.

A door-to-door sales business in southern Seoul reported 47 infections, up three from the previous day.

A sauna in the southern port city of Busan reported seven patients.

Students wearing masks study at a high school in southern Seoul on Aug. 26, 2020. All schools in the greater Seoul area were ordered to hold online classes until Sept. 11. (Yonhap)

Students wearing masks study at a high school in southern Seoul on Aug. 26, 2020. All schools in the greater Seoul area were ordered to hold online classes until Sept. 11. (Yonhap)

The country's new virus cases peaked in late February at 909 due mainly to a religious sect in the southeastern city of Daegu. After some ups and downs, the daily tally even reached single digits in late April and early May.

Health authorities have warned that the latest spike is much worse than the previous massive outbreak in Daegu, as the virus can spread even more quickly in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area.

Starting Wednesday, all schools in the greater Seoul area are ordered to hold online classes until Sept. 11 as a preemptive measure to slow the spread of the highly infectious virus. Around 6,800 schools were closed.

The country implemented the Level 2 social distancing scheme nationwide on Sunday, but major cities have already taken even tighter measures.

The capital city decided to ban the use of public transportation for those not wearing masks. Rallies of 10 or more people are restricted.

Under the Level 2 scheme, 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.

If the current restrictions are elevated to the highest level, gatherings of more than 10 people will be banned.

Health authorities say the Level 3 social distancing scheme may be inevitable if the numbers do not flatten this week.

On Wednesday, South Korea reiterated that it is still closely monitoring the situation and will observe the effect of the Level 2 social distancing scheme this week.

"It has been roughly a week since we implemented the second level of the social distancing scheme. Nothing has been decided yet on when the third level of the policy will be introduced," KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said during a daily briefing.

"But if we fail to curb the spread of the virus this week and adopt the third-level scheme, there will be significant consequences," Jeong said. "It will not just be a matter of new patients. There will be a major impact on society and the economy."

Worshipers wearing masks pray at a Buddhist temple in Daegu, 302 kilometers south of Seoul, on Aug. 26, 2020. (Yonhap)

Worshipers wearing masks pray at a Buddhist temple in Daegu, 302 kilometers south of Seoul, on Aug. 26, 2020. (Yonhap)

Data compiled by mobile carriers showed that people in the greater Seoul moved 20 percent less during the weekend than a week earlier.

The number of imported cases came to just 13. Uzbekistan accounted for three patients, and two were from Kazakhstan. There were also cases from the United States, Mexico and Egypt.

South Korea reported two more deaths, raising the death toll to 312. The fatality rate came to 1.71 percent.

The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 14,368, up 82 from the previous day. This indicates 78.66 percent of the COVID-19 patients here being cured.

South Korea has carried out 1,849,506 new coronavirus tests since Jan. 3.

The number of patients in critical conditions reached 43.

As the country continues to report more than 300 patients every day, health authorities expect the number of critically ill patients may reach 130 by Sept. 3. The country plans to expand the number of hospital beds for such patients.

Health authorities said the GH genetic strain of the new coronavirus has been prevailing in South Korea since the cluster infections reported from Seoul's nightlife district of Itaewon in May.

Previously, patients were mostly infected with the S and V strains of the virus.

KCDC said it has not yet found reinfection cases.


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