SEOUL • South Korea posted its second-highest daily number of coronavirus cases yesterday as outbreaks at a prison, nursing homes and churches continued to grow, prompting the authorities to plead for a halt to all year-end gatherings.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said there were 1,132 new coronavirus cases on Friday, not too far off the record of 1,241 logged a day earlier.
"The virus is spreading whenever and wherever it wants," Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol told an intra-agency meeting, adding that people were also being infected at small gatherings with friends and acquaintances.
"As we stand at the crossroads of the third wave, how we stop the spread hinges on how we spend this year-end and New Year period."
The government plans to hold a meeting today to discuss whether it will tighten distancing rules to the toughest level for the Greater Seoul area.
That would shut another 1.2 million stores and allow only essential workers into offices.
Curbs currently in place have closed nightclubs, karaoke bars and other night entertainment venues as well as banned on-site dining after 9pm.
Ahead of the Christmas and New Year holidays, the government also banned gatherings of more than four people in the Greater Seoul area and closed down ski resorts and other tourist spots.
South Korea had largely managed to control early major outbreaks with aggressive testing and contact tracing.
But critics have faulted the authorities for being overconfident and failing to properly prepare for the third and largest wave.
The current largest cluster is at a prison in eastern Seoul, where 514 inmates and workers have been infected, prompting the health authorities to test all people there.
The virus likely spread easily as the prison consists of five high-rise buildings and suffers from overcapacity, a health official said.
South Korea's total infections now stand at 55,902, with 793 deaths, KDCA data showed.
Earlier, Yonhap news agency reported on Friday that South Korea had received its first shipment of the coronavirus vaccine.
The vaccines, from United States biotech company Moderna, are for American troops, and airport authorities said that a cargo plane of US delivery company FedEx carrying the vaccine landed at Incheon International Airport from Memphis, Tennessee, at 12.54pm.
The shipment, reported as 1,000 doses of the vaccine, was transported to Allgood Army Community Hospital inside Camp Humphreys, the US military headquarters located about 70km south of Seoul.
General Robert Abrams, commander of US Forces Korea, said last Wednesday that his command will begin to receive and administer the Moderna vaccine "over the next few days", and the initial inoculations will go to front-line healthcare workers and first responders.
The US Department of Defence said earlier that Allgood Army Community Hospital will be one of four sites outside the continental US that will receive the initial vaccine.
The US stations some 28,000 troops in South Korea to deter North Korean aggression, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.