SEOUL – South Korea's health minister said Monday that the Seoul metropolitan area is now a “COVID-19 war zone,” as the country reported another 615 new infections and the virus appeared to be spreading faster.
The country has recorded more than 5,300 new infections in the past 10 days and Monday was the 30th day in a row of triple-digit daily jumps.
Most of the new infections were detected in the Seoul metropolitan area where health workers are struggling to stem transmissions tied to various places, including restaurants, schools, hospitals and long-term care facilities.
“The capital area is now a COVID-19 war zone,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said in a virus meeting, pleading for citizen vigilance.
He said the country may have to further increase social distancing to prevent the resurgence in the capital area from “exploding into a major outbreak nationwide and collapsing the health-care system.”
While South Korea managed to contain a major outbreak in its southeastern region in spring by channeling nationwide health resources and personnel, it’s less clear where the reinforcements will come if the virus wreaks havoc in the densely-populated capital area, where half of the country’s 51 million people live.
While President Moon Jae-in’s government had been eager to tout the country’s previous gains against the virus, there’s criticism that it gambled on its own success by moving quickly to ease social distancing restrictions to the lowest level in October even as the virus was still spreading.
Officials have moved to restore some restrictions in the capital area in in recent weeks, shutting down nightclubs, karaoke rooms and gyms, reducing in-person school classes and allowing restaurants to provide only deliveries and take-outs after 9 p.m.
In other developments in the region:
— Authorities have completed a third round of coronavirus tests in China's northeastern city of Manzhouli, where three new cases were reported on Monday. The city government said testing of 200,745 people wrapped up on Saturday following two earlier rounds last month. No new positive cases were found and the three announced Monday were among those previously isolated as suspected cases, authorities said. Testing has been accompanied by travel restrictions and the quarantining of suspected cases and close contacts of those infected, as China strives to contain the outbreak in the city on the Russian border. China reported 15 new cases on Monday, 12 of them brought from outside. Hospitals are currently treating 281 people for COVID-19 while 231 people are being monitored after having tested positive for the virus while showing no symptoms. China doesn't include asymptomatic cases in its virus tallies.
— A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson says the country is following the further spread of coronavirus in the U.S. with a “heavy heart.” The virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and critics have accused the government of botching its initial response, setting off the pandemic that has killed more than 1.5 million people, including more than 282,000 in the U.S. China has rejected such accusations, saying it’s 76-day lockdown of Wuhan and other strict measures bought the rest of the world time to prepare. “We have taken the most comprehensive, stringent and thorough prevention and control measures, taking the lead in controlling the epidemic and resuming production,” Hua Chunying said at a daily ministry briefing on Monday. “In the meanwhile, we are also following with a heavy heart the reports on the development of the epidemic situation in the United States these days, and express our condolences and sympathy to the American people in their current difficult situation,” Hua said. Public compliance with prevention measures in China has been near-universal, allowing the country to all-but eliminate cases of local transmission. Hua said that success has boosted national self-confidence and pride, along with support for the ruling Communist Party.
— Hong Kong reported 95 new virus cases on Sunday. Authorities have tightened restrictions on the city’s 7.5 million people, including limiting most social gatherings to just two people. The surge in cases has also led to the suspension of plans to open a “travel bubble” with Singapore, underscoring the impact the outbreak has had on the city’s economy.