South Korea on Tuesday ordered schools and kindergartens in Seoul to resume online classes as authorities struggle to contain several coronavirus clusters.
There were 280 new infections confirmed on Tuesday, taking South Korea’s total to 17,945. The numbers are low in global terms but represent the country’s 12th consecutive day of triple-digit increases after several weeks with new cases in the 30s and 40s.
“It is as if we were standing in front of a storm barrelling down on us,” said Kwon Joon-uk, deputy head of the KCDC. “This is a make-or-break moment.”
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Kwon highlighted the growing number of untraced cases as cause for concern, even though South Korea has established an efficient tracing and testing regime. Almost one-quarter of all new cases are untraced, about four times higher than early this year.
Lee Hoan-jong, emeritus professor at the Seoul National University Children’s Hospital, said cases of unknown origin had increased since distancing measures eased during last month’s holiday period.
“This means health authorities have to double their efforts to trace contacts to prevent the virus from spreading further.” Lee said.
Many of the recent cases have been linked to churches but there has also been an increase in the number of students infected. Over the past two weeks, 150 students and 43 staff have tested positive in and around Seoul. Since May 20 when initial restrictions were eased and South Korea resumed in-person lessons, more than 300 students have been infected.
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae highlighted the “alarming emergence of mass infections since August” and the need to contain the outbreak.
“The most urgent thing right now is to quickly bring the spread under control to administer CSAT as scheduled,” Yoo said, referring to the annual College Scholastic Ability Test which will be taken by almost 500,000 students on December 3.
Virus curbs were tightened in the Seoul region last week and were further expanded to the rest of the country on Sunday.
Meanwhile, thousands of health care workers are preparing for a three-day nationwide strike beginning on Wednesday in protest against the government’s plan to increase the number of medical students.
Thousands of trainee doctors have already been striking intermittently since last week, placing further strain on the country’s medical infrastructure.
One outbreak linked to a Starbucks outlet in Paju, north of Seoul, led to more than two dozen patrons testing positive for the virus. However, four employees who wore masks were not infected.
The initial outbreak in Paju was reported on August 8. By August 24, those initial two dozen infections among patrons led to about 40 more transmissions outside the outlet.
“This speaks volumes about the role masks can play,” said Ma Sang-hyuk, a paediatric infectious diseases doctor at Changwon Fatima Hospital. “Masks may not provide 100 per cent protection but there’s nothing out there that’s as effective.”
South Korea’s latest containment measures include restrictions on large gatherings such as religious services and the closing of nightclubs, karaoke bars and cybercafes. Authorities have warned of tougher social distancing rules – which would include closing businesses – if the number of new cases continues to grow.
The South Korean military also tightened restrictions, requiring all service members to wear face masks at all times in public, both indoors and outside. Training or gatherings of more than two people are also banned unless masks are worn, the defence ministry said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg
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This article Coronavirus: South Korea shuts schools, braces for health care workers’ strike first appeared on South China Morning Post