South Korea is seeing a steep rise in coronavirus infections unseen since the worst of its outbreak last winter as it slips into another surge while most of its people are still unvaccinated.
The 1,212 new cases confirmed by Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Wednesday came close to matching its highest daily increase of the pandemic — 1,240 cases reported on Christmas Day.
Health experts say the government sent the wrong message to the public by pushing for a premature easing of social distancing despite a steadily rising caseload.
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Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum during a virus meeting said officials will consider tougher social distancing rules if transmissions continue to grow over the next two or three days.
“This is an emergency situation where we need to invest all our abilities to respond to COVID-19,” he said, while pleading for public vigilance.
The government had planned to raise the cap on private social gatherings from four to six people, extend indoor dining at restaurants by two hours until midnight and allowing vaccinated people to be mask-less outdoors starting this month. But officials in Seoul and nearby areas held off the new rules as infections rose.
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Most of the new cases were from the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people, but infections were also occurring in other major cities and regions, including Busan, Daejeon, Daegu and the southern resort island of Jeju. There are concerns the virus could spread further due to increased travel during the summer holiday season.
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The country’s caseload is now at 162,753 after adding around 5,800 cases this month alone. The death toll is at 2,033.
The nation’s vaccination campaign has yet to gather speed, with only 30% of its population receiving first doses as of Wednesday. Just around 10% of the population have received their second doses.
The country has so far injected hospital and essential workers, people in long-term care settings, troops and adults in their 60s or older, but inconsistent supplies have left the vast majority of younger adults unvaccinated.
South Korea on Wednesday will receive 700,000 Pfizer shots from Israel in exchange for a future shipment of vaccines to Israel from September to November, when officials hope South Korea’s shortage will have eased.
Jung Eun-kyeong, KDCA’s director, said the doses will go to the capital Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi province where the virus is spreading fastest. She expressed hope the shots will help speed up vaccinations of nursery home workers and kindergarten and elementary school teachers, which authorities plan to start this month.
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