Asia Today: Virus surge makes S. Korean lockdown more likely

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea reported 441 new cases of the coronavirus, its highest single-day total in months, making lockdown-like restrictions look inevitable as transmissions slip out of control.

The country has added nearly 4,000 infections to its caseload while reporting triple-digit daily jumps in each of the past 14 days, prompting health experts to warn about hospitals possibly running out of capacity.

The 441 cases reported Thursday was the biggest daily increase since the 483 reported on March 7. South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 315 of the new cases were from the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people, where health workers have struggled to track infections linked to various sources, including churches, restaurants, schools and workers.

The National Assembly in Seoul was shut down and more than a dozen ruling party lawmakers were forced to isolate Thursday following a positive test of a journalist who covered a ruling party leaders' meeting.

Infections were also reported in major cities and provincial towns around the country, including Gwangju, Busan, Daejeon and Daegu, a southeastern city that was the epicenter of a massive outbreak in late February and March that was stabilized by April.

Health officials have described the outbreak over the past two weeks as the country’s biggest crisis since the emergence of COVID-19. While the outbreak in the Daegu region was mostly tied to a single church congregation, health workers are having more difficulty tracking transmissions in the much more populated capital area where clusters have been popping up from various places.

After resisting such steps for months out of economic concerns, the country has stepped up social distancing restrictions nationwide, banning large gatherings, shutting churches and nightspots, removing fans from professional sports and shifting most schools back to remote learning.

There are views that such measures aren’t enough. Heath officials have lamented that people are continuing to venture out in the public, saying that transportation activity in the Seoul area declined by only 20% in the past weekend.

If the viral spread doesn’t slow, health authorities have said they will consider elevating social distancing measures to the strongest “Level 3,” which could include banning gatherings of more than 10 people and advising private companies to have their employees work from home.

Such steps, designed to allow for only essential economic and social activities, may significantly hurt a weak economy, officials say.

South Korea’s central bank Thursday lowered its growth outlook for the national economy this year, predicting it to shrink by 1.3%. The country’s economy last posted a contraction in 1998 when it was in the midst of a crippling foreign currency crisis.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Australia’s hot spot Victoria state recorded its third deadliest day of the pandemic as well as the lowest tally of new COVID-19 infections in more than eight weeks. The 23 dead followed 24 deaths on Wednesday. Victoria’s Health Department said 22 of the most recent deaths were related to aged care. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said outcomes in four Melbourne aged care homes were “unacceptable.” But while 56% of British aged care homes had staff or residents infected with COVID-19, the proportion was only 8% in Australia, he said. Only four out of 700 aged care facilities in Victoria had been “acutely effected,” he said. “My fear when the COVID pandemic hit in Victoria was that we could have potentially seen far more,” Morrison said. The 113 new cases reported on Thursday was the lowest count since 87 on July 5.

— China reported no new local transmissions for an 11th straight day as it wraps up containment efforts for its most recent major outbreaks. Eight new imported cases were reported, while 324 people remained in treatment. China has reported 4,634 deaths from COVID-19 among 85,004 cases recorded since the virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. The far northwestern city of Urumqi that saw more than 300 cases in China’s latest major outbreak has relaxed quarantine restrictions on communities that were closed off to contain the spread.

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