South Korea has reported 441 new cases of coronavirus – its highest single-day total in months.
The country has added nearly 4,000 infections while reporting triple-digit daily jumps on each of the past 14 days, prompting health experts to warn hospitals may soon reach capacity.
Lockdown-like restrictions now look inevitable as transmissions slip out of control.
Of the 441 cases reported on Thursday – the biggest daily increase since March 7 – 315 were in the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people and where health workers have struggled to track infections linked to various sources including churches, restaurants, schools and workplaces.
The National Assembly in Seoul was shut down and more than a dozen ruling party politicians were forced to isolate following a positive test of a journalist who covered a leaders’ meeting.
Infections were also reported in major cities and provincial towns around the country, including Gwangju, Busan, Daejeon and Daegu – the south-eastern city that was the epicentre of a massive outbreak in late February and March that was stabilised by April.
Health officials have described the outbreak over the past two weeks as the country’s biggest crisis since the emergence of Covid-19.
After resisting such steps for months due to concerns over the economic fallout, the country has stepped up social distancing restrictions nationwide, banning large gatherings, shutting churches and nightspots, removing fans from professional sports and shifting most schools back to remote learning.
But some say such measures are not enough. Health officials have lamented that people are continuing to venture out in public, saying transportation activity in the Seoul area declined by only 20% last weekend.
If the viral spread does not slow, health authorities have said they will consider elevating social distancing measures to the strongest “Level 3”, which could include banning gatherings of more than 10 people and advising private companies to have their employees work from home.
Such steps, designed to allow for only essential economic and social activities, may significantly hurt an already weak economy, officials say.
South Korea’s central bank on Thursday lowered its growth outlook for the national economy this year, predicting it will shrink by 1.3%. The country’s economy last posted a contraction in 1998 in the midst of a crippling foreign currency crisis.