South Korea sets record for Covid-19 cases as prison reports major outbreak

Daily infections numbered over 1,000 for a fifth consecutive day. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea reported a record 1,097 new coronavirus cases on Sunday (Dec 20), including an outbreak in a Seoul prison that infected 185 as the country's latest wave of Covid-19 worsens.

With daily infections over 1,000 for a fifth consecutive day, some medical experts criticised the government for being slow to introduce tighter social distancing rules.

South Korea's aggressive tracing and testing early in the pandemic had made the country a global success story when many nations saw soaring infections, prompting wide lockdowns.

But the recent surge - stemming mostly from widespread clusters rather than the large, isolated outbreaks of the previous waves - has heightened concerns as the country runs short of hospital beds.

The daily total exceeded last Wednesday's record 1,076, according to data from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. Of the new cases, 1,072 were locally transmitted and 25 were imported, bringing the total coronavirus infections to 49,665, with 674 Covid-19 deaths as at Saturday midnight.

The prison in southeastern Seoul had 188 inmates and staff infected, according to KDCA, bringing the total number of infections linked to the facility to 215.

Conservative former president Lee Myung-bak, who is in the prion after being convicted of corruption, tested negative for the virus, a Justice Ministry official said.

There are also smaller outbreaks in nursing homes, hospitals, churches, a ski resort and a golf course.

"It is a dangerous situation," Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said at a briefing, adding that efforts to broaden testing to asymptomatic people should slow the spread of the virus.

The government has been reluctant to tighten social distancing restrictions to the highest level, worrying businesses would grind to a halt and hurt the economy.

Critics however say the government needs to bite the bullet and impose tougher restrictions.

"The government relaxed social distancing rules too early. When they needed to be strengthened, the government has acted too slowly," said Lee Hyokmin, a professor in the department of laboratory medicine at Yonsei University.

South Korea's drug watchdog is likely to approve the emergency use of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine early next year, with vaccinations likely to start in February or March, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said.

The government was also in talks with Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson's Janssen over Covid-19 vaccines, and was close to signing deals with two of them, he added. He did not elaborate.

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