|An elementary school student undergoes a COVID-19 test at a makeshift testing booth in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, Friday, following two confirmed cases at the school. Yonhap|
By Bahk Eun-ji
As the number of new COVID-19 cases here surpassed 300 for the third day in a row, infectious disease experts are calling on the government to raise the level of social distancing.
The government has made it clear that a third wave of the pandemic has already begun.
According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), Friday, there were 363 new coronavirus infections for Thursday, including 320 local cases, raising the total caseload to 30,017. It raised the country's total caseload to top the 30,000 mark 80 days after the tally surpassed 20,000 on Sept. 1.
It is the first time in nearly three months that more than 300 daily new cases were confirmed over three consecutive days since Aug. 23 when the "second wave" centered on the Seoul metropolitan area was in full swing.
|Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun delivers a live address to the nation at the Government Complex Seoul, Thursday, asking the public to refrain from nonessential social gatherings as the country braces for another wave of the pandemic. / Yonhap|
Although the government decided to raise the social distancing level in Seoul and surrounding metropolitan area as well as Gwangju and some parts of Gangwon Province from Level 1 to Level 1.5 in order to curb the increasing virus trend, health authorities are struggling to contain the situation as infection clusters from private gatherings, public facilities and hospitals have continued to occur sporadically across the country.
"It means that the third wave of pandemic has started. It could be a long and harsh winter," said Kim Woo-joo, a professor at Korea University's Guro Hospital.
The cold and dry weather in the winter season creates a more favorable environment for the virus to spread faster.
"The daily virus cases hovered around 100 for some period in August, but at the time, the weather was so hot and humid that it was relatively difficult for the virus to survive. However, quarantine authorities will face more difficulties as citizens become more engaged in indoor activities and stick less to mask-wearing rules in such dense facilities like cafes and restaurants while the temperature gets lower and lower," Kim said.
Experts said the government's move to raise the level of social distancing guidelines was belated as public vigilance has already loosened.
"This is the result of easing quarantine measures by lowering social distancing to the first level last month when the second pandemic wave in the Seoul metropolitan area from August was not completely eradicated," said Chung Ki-seok, a professor of the pulmonary and allergy medicine department at Hallym University's Sungsim Hospital.
"Considering the fact that the new virus cases have not been linked to specific events, places or facilities, many infected people will have already scattered all over the country," Chung said, adding there could be more asymptomatic patients who have not been tested yet.
The quarantine authorities have also said the third wave of the pandemic is underway following the first one in February and the second one in August.
"We believe the third wave of the virus infections is now in progress. The virus spread in the Seoul metropolitan area is especially fast," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health official, said in a briefing.
The authorities are considering raising the social distancing level further if the number of daily new cases exceeds 200 in the Seoul metropolitan area.
Under Level 2, gatherings involving 100 or more people are banned, while some virus-prone facilities will have to suspend their businesses.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun asked the public to refrain from holding year-end social gatherings and nonessential outdoor activities, as the country braces for another potential wave of the pandemic.
"In particular, we asked those in their 60s and older to minimize unnecessary outings and meetings during the winter season," Chung said in a statement.
He also encouraged public offices to minimize in-person meetings and allow people to work from home starting next week.