(ATTN: ADDS additional measures, defense chief's emergency meeting in paras 8-9, 12, 15; REPLACES photo with latest)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Dec. 14 (Yonhap) -- More than 300 Special Warfare officers were dispatched to public health centers Monday to help with the government's handling of the new coronavirus, the Army said.
A total of 379 officers from the Army's Special Warfare Command were sent to 78 public health centers in Seoul and the surrounding areas to conduct diverse supporting roles, such as contact tracing, data management and transferring samples for virus tests for two months, according to the Army.
The move came as the metropolitan area has reported large numbers of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. On Sunday, the country's number of daily infections hit a record high of 1,030, and nearly 80 percent of them were from Seoul, the western city of Incheon and Gyeonggi Province.
"We will do our best to support the government's antivirus efforts just like carrying out military operations," Yang Eun-chan, who leads the Army's new coronavirus task force, said.
In addition to the special forces personnel, the defense ministry sent 56 military doctors and 18 nurses to newly established makeshift testing centers in the greater Seoul area to support quarantine work.
Free virus tests are offered at the centers with a goal of having more people take tests.
"A total of 486 officials and around 74 more medical personnel will be additionally sent to the testing centers this, and we are considering mobilizing more personnel, if necessary, in close consultations with health authorities," a ministry official said.
Starting this week, the Armed Forces General Hospital in the central city of Daejeon will begin accepting COVID-19 patients, and military hospitals in the southeastern city of Daegu and the northern city of Goyang will also be open to civilians soon, according to the ministry. The three military hospitals have a total of 465 beds.
The decision came as the recent spike in the number of infections in the greater Seoul area has caused concern about a possible shortage of sickbeds, particularly for those with serious symptoms.
On Monday, South Korea's daily virus cases fell back below 1,000 to stand at 718, including 682 local infections, raising the total caseload to 43,484, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
But the drop is believed to be owing largely to fewer tests conducted over the weekend.
Defense Minister Suh Wook presided over an emergency meeting with top commanders Monday and ordered the mobilization of all military assets available to best support the government's virus fight, according to his office.
The military added no new COVID-19 patients Monday for the first time in nearly a month. It has seen a drastic surge in confirmed cases due to cluster infections at barracks across the world since mid-November.
Up until Monday morning, the total caseload among the military population came to 451, according to the defense ministry.
"It is necessary to continue to enforce measures to stem the spread of the virus into barracks and at the same time get key personnel and guard troops ready to conduct their duties under any circumstances," Suh said.
Legislation on compensating virus-hit small biz picks up steam
Anger mounts over deepfake porn targeting Korean female celebs; more than 330,000 sign petition
Biden's pick for Asia policy likely to seek stronger regional alliances to check China
Iran's oil tanker seizure appears aimed at pressuring S. Korea to unlock frozen assets: experts
S. Koreans feel pinch of rising housing costs amid economic downturn