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South Korea faces new COVID-19 surge with most cases in six months

South Korea recorded its second-highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, as officials race to get a new outbreak under control. File photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
South Korea recorded its second-highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, as officials race to get a new outbreak under control. File photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, July 7 (UPI) -- South Korea saw its daily tally of new COVID-19 infections reach a six-month high on Wednesday, as the country reported 1,212 cases amid a growing outbreak that has officials concerned a fourth wave of the pandemic is underway.

The daily figure, reported by the Korea Disease Control Prevention Agency, is the second-highest total that South Korea has recorded since the COVID-19 pandemic began, surpassed only by 1,240 cases on Dec. 25.

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"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.

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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.

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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.

Lee said the highly contagious delta variant is not yet the dominant strain in South Korea, but warned the country is seeing a "continuing spread" of the variant.

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South Korea had planned to ease some of its social distancing restrictions at the beginning of July, allowing restaurants to stay open later, increasing the limit of private gatherings from four people to six and permitting vaccinated people to go maskless outdoors.

However, rising numbers of cases over the past two weeks puts the plans on hold. Officials are extending current measures for another week and may further tighten restrictions, Lee said.

"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."

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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.

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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 secured commitments for enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to inoculate nearly twice the country's population. South Korea is expecting to receive 10 million doses this month from a range of suppliers, including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna.

Wednesday's newly reported infections brought South Korea's total caseload to 162,753, the KDCA said. Deaths increased by one, raising the toll to 2,033.

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