South Korea closes schools, dispatches special forces to help with efforts against Covid-19

The school closure is a step towards the imposition of Phase 3 social distancing rules. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - South Korea has shut down schools and dispatched hundreds of Special Forces officers to support contact tracing efforts, as the government tightened measures amid a third Covid-19 wave that has pushed the total number of infections beyond 43,000.

South Korea on Monday (Dec 14) reported 718 cases, down from Sunday's record-high of 1,030 and Saturday's 950.

But the number is still worrying as Monday's figures tend to be lower due to fewer tests conducted over the weekend.

Health officials have warned that the daily figure could spike to 1,200 if the pace of infection does not slow down.

The outbreak is currently fuelled by two major clusters at a restaurant in central Seoul and a church in north-western Seoul,, and numerous small clusters all over the country.

As part of preemptive measures, all elementary schools and kindergartens in Seoul and greater Seoul will switch to online learning from Dec 15 until the end of the year. Middle and high schools have already been ordered to go online since Dec 7.

Meanwhile, the army on Monday sent 379 officers from its Special Warfare Command to 79 public health centres in the capital to support virus fighting efforts for two months, such as contact tracing and transferring virus samples.

The Defence Ministry also dispatched 56 military doctors and 18 nurses to some of the 150 temporary testing centres to be set up from Monday.

Long queues were seen at some of these sites, which are offering free testing and anonymous testing to encourage more people to get tested .

Calls have grown for the government to implement the highest level of its five-tier social distancing system.

Under Level 3, which is one notch higher than the current Level 2.5 and to be imposed when local infections surge to 800-1,000 cases per day, gatherings of 10 or more people will be banned.

Non-essential facilities such as movie theatres, malls and restaurants will be closed and all employees except those in essential services will work from home.

More than 2 million facilities and businesses will be affected, according to the Health Ministry.

The government, however, is cautious not to go to the extreme due to concerns over economic fallout.

Level 3 is a "last resort" that "requires a careful review", Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said on Monday. He added that "for now it is important that everyone follows the enhanced anti-virus measures currently in force".

Experts have raised concern over growing transmission rate and shortage of hospital beds.

Over 10,000 confirmed patients are undergoing treatment, out of whom 185 are critically ill. About 500 patients a day are waiting at home for admission.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said the reproduction number is now 1.28, which means each patient infects more than one person.

About 3-4 per cent of people who were tested last week turned out positive, which experts say indicate a high rate of transmission in the community.

Seoul city government will open 18 residential treatment centres this week to provide 1,577 beds for patients with mild symptoms. The city has nine such centres now, and only 251 out of 1,937 beds are available as of Monday.

Five mega chuches have also offered their facilities in greater Seoul to be turned into residential treatment centres. This will provide a total of 890 rooms.

Meanwhile, some people are busy stocking up food and other supplies in anticipation of Level 3 social distancing.

Mr Andrew Kim, 46, saw long queues with trolleys filled with instant noodles and other food at a major supermarket in the upscale Gangnam district on Monday.

"Seems like everyone is thinking the same thing - to be prepared for the worst," Mr Kim, who is self-employed, told The Straits Times.

"It's easy to order groceries and food online, but you have to pay delivery fees which we can save for rainy days later."

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