SEOUL – South Korea reported its second highest number of daily new COVID-19 cases ever on Wednesday, just days after it began easing social distancing restrictions in some parts of the country, buoyed by an accelerated vaccine rollout.
With the majority of the 1,212 new cases coming from densely populated Seoul, officials extended movement curbs in the capital and surrounding regions for at least another week and are considering pushing restrictions back up to the highest level.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said the country’s fourth wave of the virus, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, was spreading rapidly, especially among unvaccinated people in their 20s and 30s.
Kim urged people in that demographic to get tested pre-emptively “to protect not just yourself, but everyone in your family, friends, school and the country.”
“If the situation is not under control after monitoring for two to three days, it might leave us with no choice but to impose the strictest of all social distancing levels,” Kim said.
President Moon Jae-in ordered the military be mobilized to aid wider contact tracing and urged authorities to install additional testing centers in densely populated areas, presidential spokeswoman Park Kyung-mee told reporters on Wednesday.
The daily caseload was the worst since Dec. 25, when South Korea was experiencing a third wave of the pandemic.
Officials had been moving in recent weeks toward a full reopening of the country. Movement restrictions in much of the country were eased on July 1, although officials in greater Seoul held off as they watched case numbers beginning to creep up again.
Health experts said the relaxation of measures that restricted business operating hours and social gatherings outside of Seoul, along with the knowledge that further easings would be coming, led to public complacency, particularly in socially mobile younger people in the capital.
Around 85% of the new locally transmitted cases were in the Seoul metropolitan area, which is home to more than half of the country’s population.
“While the infection rate has dropped relatively in the people aged over 60 on the back of inoculation drive, the transmission continues in the unvaccinated group,” said Kim Tark, associate professor of infectious disease at Soonchunhyang University Bucheon Hospital.
“It’s a reminder to speed up vaccination for people under 60.”
Just 10% of the country’s population of 52 million people have been fully vaccinated, while 30% have received at least one shot, the majority of them over 60 years old.
The Korean Medical Association urged the government to refrain from any hasty decisions to ease social distancing policies with vaccinations at low levels.
The country received 700,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine from Israel on Wednesday under a swap arrangement, along with a separate shipment of 627,000 directly purchased doses.
Some of the new supply will be sent to greater Seoul for inoculation programs due to start on July 13, authorities said.
Improved vaccination levels have helped lower South Korea’s mortality rate to 1.25% and the number of severe cases to 155 as of Wednesday, down significantly from 1.41% and 311 cases reported during the previous peak in late December.
The country has reported a total of 162,753 infections and 2,033 deaths during the pandemic.
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