Asia Today: Seoul surge appears to spread around South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea added its most new virus cases in months on Friday, driven by a surge around the capital that appears to be spreading nationwide.

The 324 new infections was its highest single day total since early March and the eighth consecutive triple-digit daily increase.

Most of the people recently infected live in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan region, where health workers are scrambling to track transmissions from various sources, including churches, restaurants, schools and workers.

But the new infections reported Friday were from practically all of South Korea's major cities, including Busan, Gwangju, Daejeon, Sejong and Daegu, the southeastern city that was the epicenter of a massive outbreak in late February and March.

The newest figures reported by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention brought the nation's caseload to 16,670, including 309 deaths.

Health authorities had managed to contain the virus in the Daegu region by April, ramping up tests and extensively using cellphone location data, credit-card records and security camera footage to trace and isolate contacts, which allowed the country to weather the outbreak without placing meaningful restrictions on its economy.

Another factor was that the narrowness of the Daegu outbreak effectively aided its containment — most were tied to a single church congregation of thousands of members.

It’s unclear whether South Korea’s previous formula of success would be as effective since the Seoul region has many more people and new clusters are occurring in varied places as people increasingly venture out in public.

Churches had been a major course of new cases in the Seoul area before authorities shut them this week while raising social distancing restrictions, something they had resisted for months out of economic concerns. Nightclubs, karaoke bars, buffet restaurants and computer gaming cafes are also closed while spectators have been prohibited again from baseball and soccer games.

As of noon Thursday, 676 cases have been linked to a huge northern Seoul church led by a vocal critic of the country’s president. Members of the Sarang Jeil Church and its ultra-right pastor, Jun Kwang-hun, marched in a protest last weekend. Jun shared a microphone with other activists during the protest and later was hospitalized with COVID-19.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Australia’s hard-hit Victoria state on Friday reported its lowest tally of new coronavirus cases in more than six weeks. Victoria’s Health Department reported 179 new infections and nine deaths in the latest 24-hour period, the lowest daily increase since July 8. The state capital Melbourne has been under a strict lockdown for two weeks, and authorities have said daily infections will have to fall to single digits or low double digits before Melbourne’s lockdown is relaxed.

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