South Korea’s daily tally of new COVID-19 infections reached a six-month high on Wednesday, with the country reporting 1,212 cases amid a rising epidemic that officials fear marks the start of a fourth wave of the pandemic.
The daily number, published by the Korea Disease Control Prevention Agency, is the second-highest total recorded in South Korea since the COVID-19 epidemic began, only topped by 1,240 instances on December 25.
“We see clear signs of the spread of the virus and we believe we are at a very critical moment,” Deputy Health Minister Lee Ki-il said at a press briefing on Wednesday.
The current outbreak is concentrated in the Seoul metropolitan area, home to roughly half of South Korea’s 52 million people.
The new cases are rising most rapidly among people in their 20s and 30s, officials said, with cluster infections occurring in a variety of locations including cafes, pubs, restaurants and universities.
The government will be increasing the number of walk-in testing locations, particularly in at-risk neighborhoods, and cracking down on enforcement of existing safety measures for businesses.
The highly contagious delta variation is not yet the prevalent strain in South Korea, according to Lee, but the country is experiencing “continuing spread” of the variant.
South Korea had intended to relax some of its social distancing regulations in early July, allowing eateries to stay open longer, raising the limit of private meetings from four to six individuals, and allowing vaccinated persons to go maskless outside.
However, an increase in the number of cases over the last two weeks has put the preparations on hold. Officials are continuing current limits for another week and may tighten them further, according to Lee.
“This morning [health officials] discussed measures to intensify and bolster safety measures in the Seoul metropolitan area,” Lee said. “The government has decided to maintain and extend the current social distancing level for another week and if the virus spread increases further we will be elevating the level of distancing measures.”
The surge in cases comes as South Korea is looking to ramp up its inoculation program. Some 30.1% of people in the country have received a first dose, according to the KDCA, while 10.6% have been fully vaccinated. The rollout so far has primarily been concentrated among essential and healthcare workers and those above the age of 60.
Vaccinations have slowed considerably in recent weeks, however, as the country is awaiting shipments of new doses.
The government announced a swap agreement with Israel on Tuesday in which South Korea will receive 700,000 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine with plans to return an equal amount between September and November.
The Pfizer doses from Israel arrived on Wednesday morning, and officials expect to begin distributing them next week. The vaccines will be funneled first to the greater Seoul area and will be used to inoculate those in close contact with the public, including street cleaners, retail workers and delivery people, according to the KCDA.
South Korea had already announced plans to begin vaccinating elementary, kindergarten and pre-school teachers as well as people aged above 50 this month. Officials are aiming for a 70% inoculation rate by November, which they claim will be enough for herd immunity.
Seoul has obtained pledges for enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to immunise roughly double the country’s population. This month, South Korea expects to receive 10 million doses from a variety of vendors, including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna.
The newly reported illnesses on Wednesday raised South Korea’s overall caseload to 162,753, according to the KDCA. The death toll has risen by one, to 2,033.