SEOUL • South Korea’s capital has, for the first time, ordered masks to be worn in both indoor and outdoor public places as it battles a surge in coronavirus cases centred in the densely populated metropolitan area.
In May, the city government ordered that masks be worn on public transport and in taxis, but a recent spike in cases has health officials worried that the country may need to impose its highest level of social distancing, known as phase three.
“If we can’t stop it at this stage, we have no choice but to upgrade to the third phase of social distancing,” President Moon Jae-in told his top aides yesterday. “The raise to phase three is by no means an easy option.”
Under phase three, schools and business will be urged to close, inflicting more damage on Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 266 new cases as of midnight on Sunday, down from 397 a day earlier, but another in more than a week of triple-digit daily increases.
South Korea has been widely praised for its success in tackling the virus, with extensive testing and aggressive contact tracing, but health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho said investigators had been unable to determine the transmission routes of about 20 per cent of recent cases, raising concern about so-called silent spreaders.
He called on people to avoid leaving home and to cancel any unnecessary trips out.
“If we fail to flatten the curve this week, we believe we will be faced with a very important crisis, that the virus will spread to the entire nation,” Mr Yoon told a briefing.
South Korea has recorded an average of 162.1 daily infections over the past two weeks – 13 times the average of two weeks ago.
Of the new cases, 84 per cent were in the Seoul metropolitan area, the KCDC said.
South Korea has had more than 17,000 cases and reported 309 deaths since the pandemic started.
If we fail to flatten the curve this week, we believe we will be faced with a very important crisis, that the virus will spread to the entire nation.
HEALTH MINISTRY OFFICIAL YOON TAE-HO, noting that investigators had been unable to determine the transmission routes of about 20 per cent of recent cases, raising concern about so-called silent spreaders. He called on people to avoid leaving home and to cancel any unnecessary trips out.
The recent infection resurgence is largely due to large-scale economic reopening and relaxed social distancing, according to a report from JPMorgan Chase.
The report predicts that the latest wave of coronavirus cases might infect about 7,000 people till early November, with net infections to peak by the end of this month.
The outbreak will be smaller in scale than seen previously, as testing and tracing have been strengthened with stricter social distancing rules in place, insurance analysts led by Mr M.W. Kim wrote in the note dated last Thursday.
JPMorgan’s previous forecast in February that South Korea’s virus cases in March would peak at about 10,000 in its first wave proved to be accurate: Total infections were at 9,786 at the end of March, and new cases fell after that.