South Korean officials raised social distancing restrictions to their highest level on Friday as the country faces a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections. File Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo
SEOUL, July 9 (UPI) -- Health officials announced plans Friday to raise social distancing restrictions to their maximum level in the Seoul metropolitan area as South Korea recorded its highest number of daily COVID-19 cases for a second consecutive day.
Under the new guidelines, Level 4 on the government system, gatherings of more than two people will be banned after 6 p.m. Entertainment venues such as nightclubs will be shut down, while religious services and classes will move online. Restaurants and cafes will be allowed to serve customers until 10 p.m.
The new restrictions go into effect for two weeks starting Monday.
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," Health Minister Kwon-deok Cheol said 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.
People in their 20s and 30s are the main drivers of the new cases, according to the KDCA, with cluster infections emerging from locations such as cafes, bars, restaurants and university dorms.
The highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus is also rapidly spreading, Kwon said.
"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 forward, pre-emptive measures are needed."
On Thursday, the KDCA reported that roughly 10% of newly reported COVID-19 cases nationwide over the previous week had been caused by the delta variant.
Officials will be increasing the number of epidemiological investigators to help with tracing new cases, Kwon said, while additional PCR testing locations are being opened.
The new restrictions come as South Korea is looking to ramp up its inoculation program. Some 15.47 million people, or 30.2% of the population, have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the KDCA reported Friday, with 5.57 million people, or 11% of the population, being fully vaccinated. The rollout so far has primarily been concentrated among essential and healthcare workers and those above the age of 60.
The government announced a swap agreement with Israel this week, in which South Korea received 700,000 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine with plans to return an equal amount between September and November. Health officials have said that 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.
South Korea had announced plans to begin vaccinating elementary, kindergarten and preschool teachers as well as people 50 and older this month. Officials are aiming for a 70% inoculation rate by November, which they claim will be enough for herd immunity.
Friday's new infections brought South Korea's total caseload to 164,028, the KDCA said. Deaths increased by two, raising the toll to 2,036.