South Korea has reported its biggest daily increase in coronavirus cases in 53 days, triggering warnings it may have to revert to stricter social distancing measures after appearing to have brought the outbreak under control.
The Korean Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 79 new infections on Thursday with 67 of them from the Seoul metropolitan area, home to about half of the country’s population of 51 million.
Officials said health authorities were finding it increasingly difficult to track the transmission routes for new infections and urged people to remain vigilant amid fears of a second wave of Covid-19 infections.
The health minister, Park Neung-hoo, pleaded with residents in and around the capital to avoid unnecessary gatherings and urged companies to allow sick employees to take time off work.
“Infection routes are being diversified in workplaces, crammed schools and karaoke rooms in the metropolitan area,” Park said.
The recent spike in infections has underlined the risks that come with relaxing social distancing rules, as countries seek to breathe life into their struggling economies.
More than 250 new infections were traced to clubs and bars in the Itaewon district of Seoul in early May, while the latest cluster has been linked to a distribution centre in Bucheon, near Seoul, owned by the e-commerce firm Coupang.
Local health authorities have tested about 3,500 of the centre’s 4,000 employees, the Yonhap news agency said, with 69 cases confirmed so far.
The company reportedly failed to enforce preventive measures, such as requiring employees to wear masks and keep a distance of about two metres.
Media reports said some employees had been told to continue working even after they started displaying symptoms of the virus, including a woman in her 40s who is thought to be the first person at the centre to have contracted the virus.
Coupang closed the centre on Monday. “We have been conducting strong disinfection measures at the facility,” Coupang, which closed the facility on Monday, said in a statement carried by Yonhap. “We are also disinfecting goods ordered by customers before delivering them.”
The recent rise in cases is affecting the phased reopening of schools, only recently held up as evidence that South Korea, one of the first countries outside China to be affected, had contained the outbreak. More than 500 schools have delayed the resumption of classes over virus concerns, the education ministry said this week.
Thursday’s figures followed reports of 40 new cases on Wednesday – the highest figure in seven weeks. South Korea has reported a total of 11,344 cases and 269 deaths from Covid-19.
The KCDC’s director, Jeong Eun-kyeong, said the country may need to return to social distancing restrictions that were eased in April, which prompted large numbers of people to congregate at bars and restaurants.
Jeong warned that increased activity was making it more difficult for health workers to track transmissions. “The number of people or locations we have to trace are increasing geometrically,” she said. “We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures, but there’s a limit to what we can do.
“There is a need to maximise social distancing in areas where the virus is circulating, to force people to avoid public facilities and other crowded spaces.”
South Korea, which reported its first case in 20 January, has won widespread praise for its response to the pandemic – a combination of vigorous testing and tracing rather than a European-style lockdown.
The country was reporting around 500 new cases a day in early March before the number began falling in early April.