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

SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of – South Korea reported 441 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, 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 while reporting triple-digit daily jumps on 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.

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 public.

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 an already weak economy.

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

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— India recorded its highest single-day increase with 75,760 new coronavirus cases as it ramps up testing, raising the country’s total virus tally to over 3.3 million. The Health Ministry on Thursday also reported 1,023 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking total fatalities up to 60,472. India has been recording more than 60,000 new infections per day for the last two weeks. With more than 800,000 average tests every day, India has scaled up testing per million to more than 27,000, the ministry said.

— North Korea told the World Health Organization it has tested 2,767 people for the coronavirus as of Aug. 20 and all have tested negative. In an email to The Associated Press, Edwin Salvador, WHO’s representative to North Korea, said the country is monitoring 1,004 citizens under quarantine. Edwin Salvador said North Korea told WHO it has released 29,961 people from quarantine, including 382 foreigners. It said it has not confirmed any cases of COVID-19, but outsiders doubt its virus-free claim. North Korea announced a lockdown of a border city in July after reporting a person had COVID-19 symptoms. Salvador said WHO has yet to receive details about the suspected case. He said North Korea’s borders remain closed, except for COVID-19-related shipments through the Sinuiju-Dandong crossing on its border with China.

— An Indian health official said four members of a small tribe in the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands have tested positive for the coronavirus. Dr. Avijit Ray said the four are among the 37 members of the Great Andamanese tribe who live on Strait Island. Health workers went to the island last week to test the tribe members, he said. Ray said the four apparently caught the virus during a recent visit to Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a federally administered Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal. They are being treated and “are recovering well,” he said. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a chain of islands with a population of about 400,000, have reported 2.944 coronavirus cases, including 41 deaths, mostly among non-tribal groups. Other vulnerable tribes on the islands include the Sentinelese, Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Shompen and Onge. Roy said health workers are trying to protect the tribes from the virus. “We are keeping a close watch on the movements and testing some of the other tribes,” he said.

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