South Korea sees a huge spike in unseen coronavirus infections since its worst outbreak last winter, while most of its people are still uninfected
The 1,212 new cases confirmed on Wednesday by the Korea Agency for Disease Control and Prevention came close to matching the epidemic’s highest daily increase – 1,240 cases were recorded on Christmas Day.
Health experts say that the government sent a wrong message to the public by insisting on premature relaxation of social distancing despite the rapidly increasing caseload.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said during a virus meeting that officials would consider stricter social distancing rules if transmissions continue over the next two or three days.
“This is an emergency situation where we need to invest all our capabilities to respond to COVID-19,” he said, pleading for public vigilance.
The government had planned to increase the limit on private social gatherings from four to six people, extend indoor dining in restaurants to two hours until midnight, and allow people to go out mask-free starting this month. But authorities in Seoul and surrounding areas withheld the new rules as infections increased.
Most of the new cases were from the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people, but infections were also occurring in other major cities and regions, including Busan, Daejeon, Daegu and the southern resort island of Jeju. There are concerns that the virus could spread further as travel increases during the summer holiday season.
The country’s caseload now stands at 162,753 after adding around 5,800 cases this month alone. The death toll stands at 2,033.
The country’s vaccination campaign has yet to pick up pace, with only 30% of its population getting the first dose as of Wednesday. About 10% of the population has received their second dose.
The country has so far injected hospital and essential workers, people in long-term care settings, soldiers and adults in their 60s or older, but inconsistent supplies have left the vast majority of young adults without vaccinations.
South Korea on Wednesday will receive 700,000 Pfizer shots from Israel in exchange for shipments of future vaccines to Israel from September to November, when officials hope South Korea’s shortages will subside.
KDCA director Jang Eun-kyeong said the doses would go to the capital Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province where the virus is spreading most rapidly. He hoped the shots would help expedite vaccination of nursery or daycare workers and kindergarten and primary school teachers, which officials plan to start this month.