South Korea has reported 323 new cases of the coronavirus as health officials prepare to tighten distancing restrictions in the greater capital area.
The 16th consecutive day of triple-digit jumps brought the national caseload to 19,400. Fatalities reached 321 after five more deaths overnight.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Saturday that 249 of the new cases came from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, where about half of the country’s 51 million people live. Health workers have struggled to track infections linked to churches, restaurants, schools and apartment buildings.
The country has added 4,630 cases over the last 16 days, raising fears about overwhelming hospitals.
Kwon Jun-wook, director of South Korea’s National Health Institute, said the death toll could rise in the coming weeks as many of those who tested positive this month were 60 years or older, an age group that’s more likely to experience serious health complications caused by the virus.
He said 64 of the country’s active patients are in critical condition, compared to 14 on Aug. 14, when the country began the current streak of triple-digit daily increases.
“While young people may think that COVID-19 is an illness they could recover from after a certain period, it could become a life and death matter for the parents and grandparents they love and also people with existing medical conditions,” Kwon said during a virus briefing, pleading for vigilance in social distancing. “Each and every one of us … is at war with COVID-19. In war, we need to maintain unity to protect the safety of ourselves and our neighbors and prevent the collapse of all our social systems.”
More than 1,000 infections have been linked to a northern Seoul church led by a conservative pastor who opposes the country’s president. The spread worsened after thousands of anti-government protesters, including members of the Sarang Jeil Church and its pastor, Jun Kwang-hun, marched in downtown Seoul on Aug. 15. More than 300, including Jun, have tested positive.
For eight days starting Sunday, restaurants in the Seoul metropolitan area will provide only deliveries and takeouts after 9 p.m. Franchised coffee shops like Starbucks will sell only takeout drinks and food while gyms and after-school academies will be shut to slow the viral spread in the region.
Authorities have already banned larger gatherings, shut down nightspots and churches, and shifted most schools back to remote learning nationwide. But they have so far resisted elevating restrictions to the highest level. Such a move would possibly include a ban on all gatherings of more than 10 people, shutting down a broader range of businesses and having private company employees work from home.
Malaysia has extended its pandemic movement restrictions including banning foreign tourists until the end of the year. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in a televised address late Friday that global cases have been rising and the country has seen sporadic virus clusters even though the situation was under control. Malaysia has recorded more than 9,000 cases with 125 deaths. Muhyiddin said the extension of restrictions will not disrupt daily activities as most businesses and schools have resumed. Only nightclubs and entertainment centers remain shut and international sporting events prohibited. Borders will stay closed and those entering the country will be quarantined.