SEOUL - South Korea has reported yet another record daily high in Covid-19 cases, with new clusters found all over the country, including a popular ski resort, as the authorities expand testing capability to track down asymptomatic cases in the third and most severe wave of infections.
A total of 1,078 new cases were added on Wednesday (Dec 16), beating Sunday's record of 1,030 and raising the tally to 45,442.
Health authorities admitted that the current Level 2.5 social distancing, in place since Dec 7 in Seoul and greater Seoul where most of the clusters are, have failed to flatten the infection curve, and that the weekly average of 832.6 cases a day now calls for the highest Level 3.
Most areas outside of the capital area are under Level 2.
To be imposed when the number of daily cases hit 800-1,000, Level 3 will ban gatherings of 10 and more people and shut down all non-essential services.
This is the closest thing to a lockdown for South Koreans, although it may seem lenient compared to more drastic measures in other countries.
Calls have grown for Level 3 to be imposed, even from small business owners who have suffered losses due to at least two rounds of mandatory closures, but would rather face the toughest measures now to stem the chain of transmission.
But the government insists that Level 3 should be a last resort.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, chairing a daily inter-agency meeting on Wednesday, ordered ministries to review support measures to mitigate the impact on the economy and people's livelihoods if social distancing were to be raised to the highest level. "Prepared support would pave the way for a quick recovery," he said.
For now, he added, the government's focus is in securing enough hospital beds.
Containers have already been converted into temporary wards and military hospitals are also being opened up.
The Defence Ministry said the Armed Forces General Hospital in the central Daejeon city started receiving Covid-19 patients from Wednesday, and two more military hospitals will open to civilians soon.
About 960 soldiers and 41 army medical staff were dispatched on Wednesday to 160 public health centres in the greater Seoul area to provide virus-testing support for three weeks.
South Korea has been expanding its testing capability by setting up temporary testing centres and extending operating hours of existing facilities, as part of pre-emptive measures to sniff out asymptomatic cases.
Clusters have popped up nationwide, outpacing contact tracing efforts.
Yongpyong Ski Resort in eastern Gangwon province, made famous globally by the 2002 Korean drama Winter Sonata, reported 10 cases as of Wednesday.
A dormitory for Ajou Motor College in Boryeong city reported 21 cases. A nursing home in Goyang city, north of Seoul, found 30 cases.
A study from Oct 1 to Dec 10 by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said the most common source of transmission is gatherings with family and friends.
Workplace was ranked second, followed by convalescent/care facilities, fitness/recreational facilities, and healthcare facilities.
The KDCA urged people to avoid non-essential outings, spend the winter holidays at home with household members only and "express love to family and friends through letter or video chat".