South Korea has reported its second highest number of daily new COVID-19 cases, just days after it began easing social distancing restrictions in some parts of the country, buoyed by an accelerated vaccine rollout.
With the majority of the 1212 new cases coming from densely populated Seoul, officials extended movement curbs in the capital and surrounding regions for at least another week and are considering pushing restrictions back up to the highest level.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said the country’s fourth wave of the virus, fuelled by the highly contagious Delta variant, was spreading rapidly, especially among unvaccinated people in their 20s and 30s.
Kim urged people in that demographic to get tested “to protect not just yourself, but everyone in your family, friends, school and the country”.
“If the situation is not under control after monitoring for two to three days, it might leave us with no choice but to impose the strictest of all social distancing levels,” Kim said.
President Moon Jae-in ordered the military be mobilised to aid wider contact tracing and urged authorities to install additional testing centres in densely populated areas, presidential spokeswoman Park Kyung-mee told reporters on Wednesday.
The daily caseload was the worst since December 25, when South Korea was experiencing a third wave of the pandemic.
Officials had been moving in recent weeks toward a full reopening of the country. Movement restrictions in much of the country were eased on July 1, although officials in greater Seoul held off as they watched case numbers beginning to creep up again.
About 85 per cent of the new locally transmitted cases were in the Seoul metropolitan area, which is home to more than half of the country’s population.
Just 10 per cent of the country’s population of 52 million people have been fully vaccinated, while 30 per cent have received at least one shot, the majority of them aged over 60.
The Korean Medical Association urged the government to refrain from any hasty decisions to ease social distancing policies with vaccinations at low levels.
The country received 700,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine from Israel on Wednesday under a swap arrangement, along with a separate shipment of 627,000 directly purchased doses.
Under the vaccine swap arrangement, South Korea will give Israel back the same number of shots, already on order from Pfizer, in September and October.