|People stand in line at a makeshift coronavirus testing site in front of Seoul Station, Thursday. Yonhap|
By Lee Hyo-jin
Korea may be at the beginning of a fourth big wave of COVID-19 infections, according to health experts, with the daily caseload reaching its highest level in three months amid sporadic cluster infections across the country.
According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), the country reported 700 daily new cases for Wednesday, the highest level in 91 days, bringing the total caseload to 107,598. Among the new cases were 674 local infections and 26 cases from overseas.
Medical experts who viewed that Korea has already entered its fourth wave of infections expressed concerns that the daily caseload could cross into the thousands unless the government introduces tighter social distancing measures, considering deepened public fatigue from the year-long pandemic and increased outdoor activities in the warming weather.
Jacob Lee, an infectious disease specialist at Hallym University Medical Center, wrote on Facebook, "Experts have been warning of a fourth wave of infections over the last two weeks, but the public awareness remains low. In order to improve the current situation, there should be certain changes in quarantine measures or better practicing of social distancing rules."
"Currently, there seem to be more asymptomatic patients than during the third wave, as the government has eased social distancing measures, allowing the use of bars, restaurants and other facilities. If we fail to identify the asymptomatic spreaders, we might see the daily tally reaching 1,000 by next week," warned Chon Eun-mi, a pulmonologist at Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital.
Under the government's five-tier social distancing scheme, the average number of daily cases for the past two weeks has already exceeded the benchmark for Level 2.5 ― more than 400 daily cases nationwide. Currently, Seoul and its surrounding areas are under Level 2, and other regions are under Level 1.5, with gatherings of five or more people banned nationwide.
Given the situation, it is highly likely that the government will raise the social distancing level or introduce stronger quarantine measures, Friday, as the current distancing measures end on Sunday.
|Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol speaks during a press conference at the Government Complex Sejong, Thursday. Courtesy of Ministry of Health and Welfare|
"Until now, we have been implementing social distancing rules flexibly. When the daily cases went down, we eased the regulations. But as some businesses and industries have failed recently to adhere to the rules, the daily cases have gone up sharply," Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-cheol said at a press conference, Thursday.
Kwon told the reporters that the government is making final discussions to impose effective distancing measures while minimizing economic losses of small business owners.
Meanwhile, the country's nationwide vaccination program has been met by a series of setbacks including unstable vaccine supply worldwide and safety issues surrounding AstraZeneca's products.
Due to concerns over possible blood clotting side effects, the KDCA said Wednesday it would suspend the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine for people aged under 60, and temporarily called off its plan to begin inoculations of special school teachers and school nurses scheduled to begin on Thursday.
The agency said it will make decisions whether to resume the inoculations based on experts' opinions and a thorough review of the latest report from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) over the weekend.
The EMA announced Wednesday that it has found possible links between AstraZeneca's vaccine and reports of very rare cases of blood clots in the brain, but reiterated its stance that the benefits of getting the vaccine outweigh the risk of side effects.