Health officials announced preparations Friday to increase social distance restrictions in the Seoul metropolitan region to their maximum level, as the country reported its highest number of daily COVID-19 cases for the second day in a row.
Gatherings of more than two individuals will be prohibited after 6 p.m. under the new standards, Level 4 on the government system. Nightclubs and other places of entertainment will be closed, while religious services and education will be moved online. Customers will be able to dine at restaurants and cafés until 10 p.m.
Beginning Monday, the new limits will be in force for two weeks.
The move came as the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 1,316 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, a single-day high since the start of the pandemic. It followed Thursday’s record high of 1,275 and has officials bracing for South Korea’s largest outbreak since the country’s first COVID-19 case was recorded on Jan. 20 of last year.
“We are at the beginning of the fourth wave,” said Health Minister Kwon-deok Cheol at a briefing on Friday. “We are concerned about the speed of the spread … we are seeing a wide spread of cluster infections and it is very challenging for us to contain right now.”
Around 80% of the new cases have been concentrated in the Seoul metropolitan area, which includes the capital city as well as surrounding Gyeonggi Province and the nearby port city of Incheon, the KDCA said. The region is home to around half of South Korea’s 52 million people.
According to the KDCA, people in their 20s and 30s are the major drivers of new cases, with cluster infections arising from places including cafés, bars, restaurants, and university dorms.
According to Kwon, the extremely infectious delta form of the coronavirus is also quickly spreading.
“In the past week we are seeing a threefold increase in the number of delta variant cases being detected in Seoul and we believe in order to contain the delta virus going forwards, pre-emptive measures are needed.”
The KDCA announced on Thursday that the delta variation was responsible for about 10% of newly reported COVID-19 cases in the previous week across the country.
Kwon stated that officials would increase the number of epidemiological investigators to assist in the tracing of new cases, and that additional PCR testing facilities will be created.
The new limitations come as South Korea looks to expand its immunisation programme. According to the KDCA, 15.47 million individuals, or 30.2 percent of the population, have gotten their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with 5.57 million people, or 11 percent of the population, completely vaccinated. So far, the implementation has largely targeted critical and healthcare employees, as well as individuals over the age of 60.
This Monday, the government announced a swap arrangement with Israel in which South Korea got 700,000 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in exchange for an equivalent number to be returned between September and November. According to health authorities, the vaccinations will be distributed first to the greater Seoul region, where they will be used to immunise persons in direct contact with the public, such as street cleaners, retail employees, and delivery personnel.
South Korea has already announced intentions to start vaccinating primary, kindergarten, and pre-school teachers, as well as those aged 50 and up, this month. Officials want to achieve a 70% inoculation rate by November, which they believe will be sufficient for herd immunity.
The additional illnesses on Friday pushed South Korea’s overall caseload to 164,028, according to the KDCA. The death toll has risen by two, to 2,036.