Asia Today: Seoul surge appears to spread around South Korea

South Korea has added its most new virus cases in months, driven by a surge around the capital that appears to be spreading nationwide

SEOUL, South Korea —
South Korea added its most new virus cases in months on Friday, driven by a surge around the capital that appears to be spreading nationwide.

The 324 new infections was its highest single day total since early March and the eighth consecutive triple-digit daily increase.

Most of the people recently infected live in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan region, where health workers are scrambling to track transmissions from various sources, including churches, restaurants, schools and workers.

But the new infections reported Friday were from practically all of South Korea’s major cities, including Busan, Gwangju, Daejeon, Sejong and Daegu, the southeastern city that was the epicenter of a massive outbreak in late February and March.

The newest figures reported by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention brought the nation’s caseload to 16,670, including 309 deaths.

Health authorities had managed to contain the virus in the Daegu region by April, ramping up tests and extensively using cellphone location data, credit-card records and security camera footage to trace and isolate contacts, which allowed the country to weather the outbreak without placing meaningful restrictions on its economy.

Another factor was that the narrowness of the Daegu outbreak effectively aided its containment — most were tied to a single church congregation of thousands of members.

It’s unclear whether South Korea’s previous formula of success would be as effective since the Seoul region has many more people and new clusters are occurring in varied places as people increasingly venture out in public.

Churches had been a major course of new cases in the Seoul area before authorities shut them this week while raising social distancing restrictions, something they had resisted for months out of economic concerns. Nightclubs, karaoke bars, buffet restaurants and computer gaming cafes are also closed while spectators have been prohibited again from baseball and soccer games.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the KCDC, said the government should consider stronger distancing measures — possibly including banning gatherings of over 10 people, shutting schools, halting professional sports and advising companies to have employees work from home — if the virus’s spread doesn’t slow after the weekend.

Jeong said country is now conducting 50,000 tests per day, compared to around 20,000 per day during the Daegu outbreak, while fighting what she described as the country’s biggest crisis since the emergence of COVID-19.

She said 732 infections confirmed as of Friday were linked to members of a northern Seoul church led by a vocal critic of the country’s president. Sarang Jeil Church pastor Jun Kwang-hun was hospitalized with COVID-19 on Monday after participating in an anti-government protest last week where he shared a microphone on stage with other activists.

Health workers have used location data provided by cellphone carriers to identify some 15,000 people who spent more than 30 minutes on the streets where the protests took place and are alerting them to get tested. At least 71 infections have been linked to the protests.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— India’s coronavirus caseload crosses 2.9 million with a surge of 68,898 in the past 24 hours. The Health Ministry on Friday also reported 983 more deaths, taking total fatalities to 54,849. India has been recording at least 50,000 new infections per day since mid-July. Four of India’s 28 states now account for 63% of fatalities and 54.6% of cases. Western Maharashtra state and three southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are the worst-hit. The Health Ministry said more than 900,000 tests are being done and the rate of tests that are positive for the virus is averaging 8%, but it will be lowered through isolation, tracking and clinical management.

— A Chinese mining company in Papua New Guinea claimed to have immunized employees against COVID-19 in an apparent vaccination trial, a newspaper reported. The Australian newspaper reported Papua New Guinea’s health department is investigating the claim by Ramu NiCo Management. Papua New Guinea has not approved any vaccine trials and says any vaccine imported into the country must be approved by PNG’s health authorities. The newspaper reported that a document on Ramu letterhead said 48 Chinese employees were “vaccinated with SARS-COV-2 vaccine” on Aug. 10 and tests on them might return false-positive results. Papua New Guinea has recorded only 361 COVID-19 cases and four deaths but infections have surged in the past month.

— Australia’s hard-hit Victoria state on Friday reported its lowest tally of new coronavirus cases in more than six weeks. Victoria’s Health Department reported 179 new infections and nine deaths in the latest 24-hour period, the lowest daily increase since July 8. The state capital Melbourne has been under a strict lockdown for two weeks, and authorities have said daily infections will have to fall to single digits or low double digits before Melbourne’s lockdown is relaxed.