Asia Today: S. Korea reports 950 cases, biggest daily jump


SEOUL – South Korea has reported another 950 coronavirus cases, its largest daily increase since the emergence of the pandemic, as fears grow about overwhelmed hospitals in the greater capital area.

The figures released by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Saturday brought the country’s caseload to 41,736, after health officials added more than 8,900 cases in the last 15 days alone. Six COVID-19 patients died in the past 24 hours to bring the death toll to 578.

Nearly 680 of the new cases came from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, where health workers have struggled to track transmissions popping up from just about everywhere, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, restaurants, saunas, schools and army units.

Infections were also reported in other major urban centers, including Busan, Gwangju, Daejeon, Ulsan and Daegu, a southeastern city that was the epicenter of the spring outbreak.

The government had eased its social distancing restrictions to the lowest tier in October despite experts warning about a viral surge during colder weather, when people spend longer hours indoors.

Officials restored some restrictions in recent weeks, such as shutting nightclubs and allowing restaurants to provide only deliveries and takeouts after 9 p.m., and could be forced to clamp down on economic activity further.

Health officials are also trying to ramp up testing and prevent the virus from being spread by those with mild or no symptoms.

From Monday, rapid antigen tests at emergency rooms, intensive care units and remote hospitals will be covered by the national health insurance, which would cost recipients about 8,000 won ($7) each.

Antigen tests and another form of rapid testing based on saliva samples will also be available at designated sites in the capital area free of charge and regardless whether people are symptomatic.

The country will also deploy more than 800 police officers, troops and civil servants to support contact tracing.

In other developments in the region:

— The Australian state of Queensland on Saturday welcomed travelers from New Zealand, who for the first time in 10 months were supposed to enter without having to quarantine. But the first flight didn’t go according to the plan. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk reopened the state to New Zealand from 1 a.m. Saturday, saying residents would no longer need to abide by COVID-19 travel restrictions. When the flight touched down in Brisbane, passengers were whisked away in busses to begin a mandatory 14 days in hotel quarantine. A spokesman for the premier said the travelers had arrived on a “red” flight, which included passengers from other countries. “So all the passengers on that plane have to go into hotel quarantine because you had Kiwis sitting next to people from the United States, for example,” he said. Passengers from New Zealand on the flight were told they would need to quarantine before takeoff and had the option to wait for a “green” flight with only New Zealanders aboard, he said. Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said the first quarantine-free flight from New Zealand was due to arrive on Wednesday. More than 200,000 New Zealanders live in Queensland, the popular destination for those wanting to escape blustery southern hemisphere winters or visit relatives in the subtropical and tropical state, making them the largest group of foreign-born residents. The decision to lift travel restrictions came after New Zealand went 28 days without a local case. While people from New Zealand can enter Queensland freely, they will still have to go into managed isolation or quarantine when they return home.

— Eight mainly Western nations accused North Korea of using the pandemic “to crack down further on the human rights of its own people,” pointing to reports of an uptick in executions related to the coronavirus and strict controls on movements in and around the capital. Their statement was read virtually after the U.N. Security Council discussed North Korea’s human rights situation behind closed doors on Friday. Germany had sought an open meeting but Russia and China, both neighbors of North Korea, objected. Seven council members — Germany, Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, United Kingdom and United States — joined by Japan said in the statement that North Korea was putting nuclear power and military might over its people. The government’s decision “to prioritize its weapons programs over the needs of its people and their isolation from the international community, is inevitably worsening the impacts of the pandemic on the North Korean population,” they said. North Korea sealed its border with China, its biggest trading partner and aid benefactor, as the coronavirus started spreading in January. Kim Jong Un’s government maintains it hasn’t found a single coronavirus case on its soil, a claim disputed by outside experts.


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