|A bus to carry COVID-19 patients stands by in front of the boot camp of the Army's 5th Infantry Division in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province, Thursday, as nearly 70 infections were reported there.|
COVID-19 cases exceed 500 for 1st time since March
By Jun Ji-hye
Concerns are growing that the country's response system for controlling COVID-19 infections and treating virus patients is reaching its limits amid an explosive increase in new daily cases as the nation fights a third round of the pandemic.
Experts said Thursday that the speed of virus transmission appears to have accelerated beyond that of the epidemiological investigations and antivirus measures being conducted by the health authorities. This has resulted in a continuous rise in new daily cases from the 100 range to the 300 range and eventually to the 500 range in recent weeks.
According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), the nation added 583 infections including 553 locally transmitted cases for Wednesday, raising the total caseload to 32,318. This was a sharp rise from 382 identified the day before.
The number of new daily cases surpassed 500 for the first time since early March when the country was hit by the first wave of infections.
Korea experienced the first wave of infections centered on the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in February and March, and the second wave of infections in August and September after a large-scale rally took place in central Seoul, Aug. 15.
The latest increase in cases that has caused the third wave of the pandemic is attributed to sporadic infection clusters that have continued to grow from human interactions related to everyday activities.
According to the KDCA, the recent clusters have been traced to schools, private educational institutes, churches, nursing homes, saunas, bars, military bases, prisons and social gatherings held across the country.
As of noon Thursday, the boot camp of the Army's 5th Infantry Division in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province, has reported 68 patients; while 119 patients have been traced to a church in Seoul's Mapo District. A sauna in Seoul's Seocho District has seen 48 patients, the KDCA said.
With infection routes having become much more diversified, the authorities are facing greater difficulties in responding to infections promptly.
"It is almost impossible for the government to control all social gatherings through regulations," Sohn Young-rae, a senior official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said during a media briefing.
The government said the nation is expected to see 400 to 600 new daily cases until early December, raising expectation that the enhanced social distancing measures will begin to have an effect in curbing the pandemic next week at the earliest.
The government raised its five-tier social distancing system in Seoul and the surrounding areas by one notch to Level 2, and in Gwangju and North and South Jeolla provinces to Level 1.5, beginning Tuesday.
Experts said, however, that the third wave of infections will pose a more serious threat, compared to the two previous ones, warning of a shortage of hospital beds.
"The first and second waves of infections involved certain regions and organizations so the health authorities were able to trace patients through their epidemiological investigations," said Kim Woo-joo, a doctor at the infectious disease department of Korea University Guro Hospital. "But now, multiple infection clusters occur simultaneously, making it more difficult for the authorities to trace patients through the investigations."
For its part, the Seoul Metropolitan Government said Thursday that it will consult with experts to toughen antivirus measures in the city.
"We will conduct a special survey to identify places that require strengthened antivirus measures as the environment is changing in winter," Park Yoo-mi, a disease control official at the city government, said.