SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea reported a record number of coronavirus deaths on Thursday (Dec 17) as the country's biggest wave of infections since the start of the pandemic strained hospital resources and sparked panic buying in anticipation of a harsh new lockdown.
The novel coronavirus had claimed another 22 lives as of midnight on Wednesday (Dec 16), sharply up from a previous high of 13 deaths in a single day earlier in the week, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported.
Deaths were expected to rise after infections had spiked in Seoul and surrounding areas, with another 1,014 cases reported on Thursday including a daily record of 423 in the densely populated capital city.
Tighter social distancing rules have failed to reverse the trend and the government has warned it may have to impose harsher restrictions on business activity, though it says that move would only be a last resort.
Many residents of Seoul have started stocking up on food and other essential supplies in anticipation the city will be locked down for the first time to halt the spread of the disease.
"I have already ordered dozens of instant rice packages online, and many of my friends and their families are rushing to large supermarkets," one resident, who only gave her surname Lee, told Reuters.
Another resident said she had her hair cut shorter than usual because she had heard that social distancing would soon be tightened to Level 3, which would shut about 150,000 beauty and barber shops across the country.
The government said it would give people plenty of warning before imposing Level 3 curbs.
"There won't be a situation where all the supermarkets are closed and you can't buy necessities," Lee Sang-won, a senior official at the KDCA, told a briefing.
For much of the year South Korea had managed to keep cases low through aggressive tracing and testing.
This new wave emerged from multiple clusters in Seoul as well as in its densely populated suburbs.
Hospitals were at a breaking point with only three critical care beds available as of Wednesday in greater Seoul, an area with a population of almost 26 million people.
South Korea has now reported a total of 46,453 cases of the novel coronavirus, with 634 deaths.