SEOUL, Dec. 20 (Korea Bizwire) — South Korea’s daily coronavirus cases hit a record high Sunday, exceeding the 1,000 mark for the fifth straight day and posing the biggest challenge to the country’s battle against the virus so far amid the rising death toll.
The country added 1,097 more COVID-19 cases, including 1,072 local infections, raising the total caseload to 49,665, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Amid no signs of a slowdown in the spread of the virus, Health Minister Park Neunghoo called on each citizen to “be more patient in sticking to the government’s guidelines and participate in the nationwide social distancing campaign in order (for the government) not to adopt the highest Level 3 social distancing guidelines” during a briefing.
Park warned against raising the distancing scheme to the “very serious” Level 3 in the greater Seoul area from the current Level 2.5, as it may have a grave impact particularly on the manufacturing and services industries.
“There should be enough discussions about the reality under the Level 3 guidelines, if adopted. The government is not considering imposing lockdowns, like restricting region-to-region movements, for now,” said the minister.
Even if the toughest Level 3 curbs are adopted, the government will explore ways to allow people to maintain their daily lives, including purchases of necessities and meetings of fewer than five people, he said.
An uptick in virus cases came even as the country conducted fewer tests over the weekend. A total of 36,847 virus tests were carried out Saturday, about 20,000 fewer than those on business days.
Health authorities said this week will be a critical juncture for the country to see whether the spread of the virus will accelerate. The recent virus tally has already met criteria for the adoption of the Level 3 scheme, the highest in the five-tier scheme.
Level 3 can be adopted when locally transmitted cases hover between 800 and 1,000 for a week or the daily tally doubles from the previous day.
If the toughest curbs are imposed, more than 2 million shops and facilities will be ordered to be shut down.
The country has been applying Level 2.5 social distancing rules in the greater Seoul area, home to half of its 51.6 million population, and Level 2 rules in the rest of the country.
A relentless spike in virus cases spawned concerns about a shortage of hospital beds and a rise in fatalities. Health authorities issued a rare order to private hospitals Friday to secure more intensive-care beds for COVID-19 patients.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients reached 278, up three from the previous day.
In the greater Seoul area, the number of intensive-care sickbeds that were immediately available came to just three as of Saturday. The capital reported no remaining such beds.
The country reported 15 additional deaths, raising the death toll to 674. The fatality rate was 1.36 percent. The daily number of deaths hit a record high of 22 on Thursday.
Health authorities earlier said they are seeking to secure an additional 10,000 sickbeds, including 300 intensive-care beds for seriously ill patients.
The third wave of the pandemic is raging across the nation. Of the newly identified local infections, more than 70 percent cases were reported in the capital and its surrounding areas.
Of the local infections, 470 cases were reported in Seoul and 244 cases in Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital. Incheon, west of Seoul, reported 62 more cases.
Other municipalities reported new infections, with the country’s largest port city of Busan adding 33 cases and South Gyeongsang Province reporting 49 new cases.
Chains of cluster infections at facilities including nursing homes and churches, and through private gatherings, continued to pop up.
Cases traced to a detention center in eastern Seoul reached 215 as of noon, up 188 from the previous day.
Infections at a nursing home in southern Seoul rose 23 to 54, while those tied to a church in western Seoul came to 203, up 11 from a day earlier. Cases related to a ski resort in the eastern county of Pyeongchang increased by three to 20.
The country, meanwhile, added 25 imported cases, increasing the total to 5,082. Six cases came from the United States, followed by three each from Indonesia, Poland, Russia and Mexico.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 34,722, up 388 from the previous day.
The country has carried out 3,683,094 coronavirus tests since Jan. 3. The country reported the first case on Jan. 20.
The pandemic, which started in China late last year, has killed nearly 1.7 million people worldwide and infected more than 76 million as of Sunday, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.