SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — 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.
In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:
— India has recorded 76,472 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, raising its tally to over 3.4 million. A country of 1.4 billion people, India now has the fastest-growing caseload in the world. The Health Ministry on Saturday also reported 1,021 deaths for a total of 62,550. India is reporting around 1,000 COVID-19 deaths every day. There has been a spurt of new cases over the last few weeks. One of the reasons is testing: India now conducts more than 900,000 tests every day, compared with just 200,000 two months ago. Even as western Maharashtra and the three southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka remain the worst-hit regions with nearly 64% of fatalities and 55% of active cases, the virus is spreading fast in the country’s vast hinterlands. Earlier this week, members of a small tribe in the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands tested positive with experts saying the virus has now entered the widespread transmission stage.
— 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.
— The Australian state of Victoria has reported 18 more COVID-19 deaths and 94 new cases — the first time in almost two months that new infections have dropped below 100. The deaths take the state toll to 514 and the Australian COVID-19 death total to 601. Since Monday there have been no more than 150 new daily cases in Victoria, adding to speculation about an easing of lockdown restrictions across Melbourne, which include a daily 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. But state Premier Daniel Andrews says it is too soon to dramatically relax the rules. “It will have to be gradual and steady because we’ve all got to be really careful to make sure nothing we do makes it more likely that we find ourselves back here at exactly this place,” Andrews said. “We want to defeat the second wave … that means we can avoid a third wave.”
— About one-third of students returned to school in the Chinese capital on Saturday in a staggered start to the new school year because of the coronavirus. The first batch of 590,000 students in Beijing included all three years of high school, the first and third years of middle school and the first grade of primary school. Another 400,000 students are to start school on Tuesday, and the final 520,000 on Sept. 7. Both students and teachers are required to wear masks. China reported nine new coronavirus cases in the latest 24-hour period, bringing its official total to 85,022. All the new cases were overseas arrivals. The country’s death toll remained at 4,634.
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