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(4th LD) New virus cases hit highest since March, tougher curbs to be enforced

All News 17:46 December 06, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS details throughout)

SEOUL, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) -- The daily number of new coronavirus cases bounced back to over 600 on Sunday, as authorities decided to raise social distancing measures to Level 2.5 in the greater Seoul area to curb the relentless surge in COVID-19 transmissions.

The country added 631 more COVID-19 cases, including 599 local infections, raising the total caseload to 37,546, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). Five additional coronavirus fatalities were reported, bringing the total to 545.

The number of daily patients was up 48 from 583 on Saturday, when it briefly fell below 600 a day after hitting a nine-month high the previous day. Sunday's figure is the highest during the third wave of the pandemic that began last month and the highest since the first wave peaked in February and early March.

Over the past week, the average number of daily patients came to 514, with that of the greater Seoul area reaching a whopping 375.

A restaurant in a large shopping mall in Seoul's Yeongdeungpo Ward is almost empty on Dec. 6, 2020. On the same day, the government announced its decision to raise the country's social distancing level to the second highest of the five-tier system, as the country's daily infections bounced back to over 600. (Yonhap)

Nationwide, the percentage of people testing positive for the virus was 4.39 percent Sunday, up 1.86 percentage points from 2.53 percent the day before.

The resurgence should be taken far more seriously considering that there are fewer people tested on weekends, according to health officials.

Health authorities decided late Sunday to raise the social distancing level by one notch to Level 2.5, the second highest in the five-tier system, in the greater Seoul area for three weeks starting Tuesday, to curb the relentless surge in COVID-19 transmissions.

"We have reached the conclusion that South Korea is on the brink of a major expansion of virus cases nationwide," Health Minister Park Neunghoo said during a briefing.

"While we earlier expected that the country would experience the impact of the previous social distancing schemes, they have not yet shown a clear effect in curbing the spread of the virus and the number of new patients," Park said. "It is likely that the effect will be limited down the road as well."

The distancing level in other areas will be upgraded to Level 2, the third-highest level.

The enhancement was made as the recently raised social distancing measures are considered ineffective.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun (L) presides over a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters in Seoul to discuss whether to raise the country's social distancing level on Dec. 6, 2020. (Yonhap)

The country's social distancing level was pushed up to Level 2 in the greater Seoul area about two weeks ago, which includes the suspension of entertainment facilities, such as nightclubs. Starting Tuesday for one week, the authorities implemented additional restrictions on saunas, aerobic centers and similar facilities where COVID-19 could easily be spread.

Despite the toughened social distancing steps, new coronavirus cases have skyrocketed, especially in the greater Seoul area, putting health officials on edge.

Under Level 2.5, gatherings with 50 or more people are prohibited, while door-to-door sales businesses, karaoke rooms, indoor fitness facilities and indoor concert venues that offer standing shows will be forced to close, in addition to nightclubs and bars that allow dancing.

Restaurants cannot receive customers after 9 p.m. but can offer takeout and delivery. Cafes are only allowed to serve takeout at all hours.

Movie theaters, internet cafes, private academies, study halls, amusement parks, beauty salons, barber shops, large grocery stores and department stores cannot operate past 9 p.m.

The nighttime curfew for those facilities has already been in place in Seoul since Saturday, a day after the metropolitan government announced measures to preemptively curb the soaring infections in the capital area. The city's public transportation service was also reduced by 30 percent.

Sports events are allowed without spectators while religious services are only available online or via broadcasts. In-person religious activities, if needed, are permitted with 20 or less participants.

"The Level 2.5 social distancing scheme is the final measure we can take before adopting the highest alert of three," Park said, urging people to cooperate with the guidelines.

"For example, just because restaurants are allowed to operate through 9 p.m., it does not mean that people should freely dine out before that time," the minister added. "People should refrain from making unnecessary trips and having social gatherings."

Another official said South Korea is open to adopting Level 3 depending on the situation within three weeks.

A special notice for the temporary closure of the National Palace Museum of Korea in downtown Seoul is put up in front of the main entrance on Dec. 6, 2020. (Yonhap)

The recent surge in COVID-19 patients is quickly depleting hospital beds for critical cases, according to health officials.

Of a total of 550 beds across the country, only 55, or 10 percent, are available now, including 20 in the greater Seoul area. All beds are occupied in Daejeon, North Jeolla, South Chungcheong and South Jeolla provinces, they said.

The number of COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms across the country reached 125, up from 121 on Saturday.

Health authorities said if the number of patients in critical condition continues to rise, the country may face a shortage of hospital beds within two weeks.

As a shortage of beds will immediately lead to more deaths, the authorities said they are currently making efforts to secure more beds for critically ill patients.

Of the additional locally transmitted cases, 253 were reported from Seoul and 176 from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. Incheon, just west of Seoul, added 41 more cases. The greater Seoul area is home to about half of the country's 51.6 million population.

The accumulated number of confirmed COVID-19 patients in Seoul topped 10,000 as over a thousand new cases were reported for the past four days.

Seoul reported a total of 254 new daily cases, including one imported case, bringing the total to 10,205 as of the start of Sunday. The daily figure is the third largest since the outbreak began in January.

Gyeonggi Province recorded the highest single-day rise of 184 to raise its total caseload to 8,159.

A rise in community cases in greater Seoul was a main reason for the surge in new virus cases. In Seoul, confirmed cases were reported at a sauna, a musical practice room and restaurants, with Gyeonggi Province reporting new cases in a nursing home and a university hospital.

The number of imported cases came to 32, up from 24 the previous day. They include 12 from the United States, eight from Russia, and two each from India and Germany.

The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 29,128, up 211 from Saturday.

Citizens line up at a screening center of the National Medical Center in Seoul to take a coronavirus test on Dec. 6, 2020. (Yonhap)

ksnam@yna.co.kr

colin@yna.co.kr
(END)

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