Health workers clad in protective gear. (Yonhap News TV)
South Korea’s new daily coronavirus cases exceeded 300 for the second consecutive day Thursday, with sporadic clusters of infections linked to everyday spaces posing a challenge to authorities’ fight to rein in another nationwide wave of COVID-19 infections.
The country reported 343 new coronavirus cases -- 293 locally transmitted and 50 imported from overseas -- in the 24 hours ending Wednesday at midnight, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
New clusters of infections continue to pop up in connection to everyday spaces such as cafes, restaurants, karaoke rooms, schools, workplaces and indoor sports facilities, as well as hospitals and nursing homes, which complicates health authorities’ efforts to identify and trace sources of infections.
A new cluster of infections was traced to a social gathering among students from a prominent university in the SInchon area. Twelve people have tested positive for the virus since the first case was reported on Monday.
Other new clusters were traced to religious facilities in southern and northern Seoul, with 12 and 24 infections reported, respectively. Their respective first cases were reported Monday and Sunday.
According to the KDCA, the largest portion of locally transmitted infections reported for the past two weeks were from Seoul with 34.9 percent, followed by Gyeonggi Province with 23.9 percent and Gangwon Province with 6.4 percent.
Of the total cases over the past two weeks, 32.2 percent were tied to clusters, 25.1 percent were linked to earlier cases and 17.6 percent were from overseas. The proportion of cases with unknown transmission routes increased to 15.8 percent.
The R number -- the average number of secondary infections produced by a single infected person -- is estimated at about 1.5, according to the KDCA.
“We are at a critical juncture facing a mass spread of the virus,” said Health Minister Park Neung-hoo at a briefing, citing a spike in virus cases both in the Seoul metropolitan area and outside the region. “Virus infection prevention-related fatigue and insensitivity could make our achievement (in curbing spread of the virus) in vain.”
Of Thursday’s locally transmitted cases, the majority were in Greater Seoul -- 107 in Seoul, 59 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital, and 11 in Incheon. Outside the Seoul metropolitan area, 28 cases were posted in South Gyeongsang Province, with 27 in South Jeolla Province and 20 in Gangwon Province, as virus cases were registered in all parts of the country except for Ulsan, Sejong and Jeju Island.
The number of COVID-19 cases per 1 million people in South Korea is in the lowest three among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member states, according to Lee Sang-won, a senior official from the KDCA.
France reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases per 1 million population with 4,508 cases, followed by the US with 2,669 cases, during the period of Nov. 8-14. Two cases were registered per 1 million people in Australia, four in New Zealand and 20 in Korea.
But the infection rate here is increasing alarmingly, he said.
Korea’s COVID-19 daily case count exceeded 300 for the first time in 81 days on Wednesday with 313 cases after reporting daily case numbers in the 200-range for four days straight. The daily caseload has been in the triple digits since Nov. 8.
The coronavirus climbed to an all-time high of more than 500,000 per day globally a day earlier.
World Health Organization data showed that 214,000 coronavirus cases were added worldwide on Sept. 1 and 85,000 on May 1, which means the single-day increase in virus cases in recent days is about twice that of September and six times greater than in May.
Out of the 50 imported cases reported Thursday, 39 were detected at the border, while the other 11 were identified as the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea. Twenty-three cases were from elsewhere in Asia, 14 came from the Americas, seven were from Europe and six came from Africa.
Thirty-three of those cases involved foreign nationals.
The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition here stood at 79, up from 60 a day earlier.
Two more people died from the virus, bringing the death toll to 498, with the overall fatality rate at 1.68 percent.
So far, of the 29,654 people confirmed to have contracted the new coronavirus here, 26,098 have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 125 from a day earlier. Some 3,058 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine.
The country carried out 19,481 tests in the past day. A total of 45,525 people were awaiting results.