South Korea scrambles to contain new coronavirus outbreak threatening Seoul

People wearing masks to avoid the spread of COVID-19 arrive at Gimpo international airport in Seoul, South Korea, May 1, 2020.
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - South Korean officials scrambled on Monday (May 11) to contain a new coronavirus outbreak that is threatening to spread throughout the densely populated capital, leading the country to reconsider plans to reopen schools.

Officials reported 35 new infections across the country as of midnight on Sunday (May 10), the second consecutive day of new cases of that magnitude and the highest numbers in more than a month, reinforcing fears the country could be entering a second wave outbreak.

The 69 cases reported by the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) over the past 48 hours were equivalent to the number of cases it recorded over the entire previous week.

Most of the new cases were linked to an outbreak at several Seoul nightclubs and bars. Authorities had tested 4,000 people who had patronised the night spots, but were still trying to track down around 3,000 more.

"Our top priority is to minimise the spread of the infections in the greater Seoul area," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a meeting with government officials on Monday.

Chung called for local governments to mobilise as many personnel as available and work with police to track down the missing patrons, some of whom authorities suspect of intentionally avoiding being tested.

"We should quickly find and test them, and speed is key," he said.

The spike in cases comes just as the South Korean government was easing some social distancing restrictions and moving to fully reopen schools and businesses, in a transition from intensive social distancing to "distancing in daily life".

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Seoul's education superintendent proposed delaying reopening schools scheduled to begin on Wednesday (May 13) by one week in light of the new outbreak, Yonhap news agency reported.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon pleaded with clubgoers to be testing, warning that people caught evading testing could be fined.

"If Seoul was penetrated, the nation is at risk," he said, noting the city currently has fewer than 700 of the nation's 10,909 cases, which include 256 deaths.

In a speech to the nation on Sunday, President Moon Jae-in warned that "it's not over until it's over", adding that the new cluster shows the virus can spread widely at any time.

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