[News analysis] Government in quandary over Level 3 social distancing as daily cases exceed 400

Posted on : 2020-08-28 17:27 KST Modified on : 2020-08-28 17:27 KST
Greater Seoul area sees more than 300 cases for first time since outbreak
An arcade in Gwangju is closed on Aug. 27 as the city restricts public activity to the equivalent of Level 3 social distancing measures. (Yonhap News)
An arcade in Gwangju is closed on Aug. 27 as the city restricts public activity to the equivalent of Level 3 social distancing measures. (Yonhap News)

South Korea reported 441 COVID-19 cases on Aug. 27, the highest number in five months. This puts the government in a deepening quandary as it considers whether to upgrade the social distancing regimen to Level 3. Disease control authorities stressed that “while the social distancing level is a concern, it’s also very important right now that people engage in behavior that is suited to each level.” But tension has been mounting, with the city of Gwangju issuing an administrative order the same day with the equivalent of Level 3 guidelines.

On Aug. 27, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) announced that the number of cases for Aug. 27 stood at 441 as of 12 am. It was the largest single-day total since 483 cases were confirmed on Mar. 7 during a cluster infection associated with the Shincheonji religious sect. The Seoul Capital Area (SCA) accounted for around 70% of cases at 313, marking the first time in the domestic outbreak that the region’s daily count exceeded 300. The number of new cases outside the SCA also exceeded 100 for the first time since Mar. 21. It’s a sign that the virus is spreading rapidly not just within the SCA, but nationwide.

According to its current plan, the government is to observe the situation through this weekend before making a decision on whether to upgrade to Level 3 social distancing. Multiple key government officials said the decision would be made after observing trends through Saturday, which will mark one week since social distancing was upgraded to Level s at a national level.

The conclusion underlying this attitude from the government appears to be that the recent rapid rise in confirmed cases associated with Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul’s Seongbuk District and a Liberation Day demonstration at Gwanghwamun Square on Aug. 15 can be “managed.”

“This is a situation where the coronavirus has spread nationally due to large-scale demonstrations with masses of people attending, and the fact that the confirmed case numbers are rising as we find and test them means that the disease control system is working well,” a Blue House official said.

Testing rates for Sarang Jeil Church, Gwanghwamun rally dismally low

But this conclusion overlooks the fact that the testing rates for Sarang Jeil Church members and Gwanghwamun rally participants have not been high. According to figures announced the same day by the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters (CDSCHQ), a total of 1,902 out of 5,912 Sarang Jeil Church members and visitors -- just 32% -- have been tested for the virus. Among the 51,242 Gwanghwamun rally participants and nearby visitors, 8,036 have completed testing, or 16%. The number of Sarang Jeil Church members and visitors who also attended the Gwanghwamun rally totaled 639, with just 241 (38%) of them having undergone testing to date. Seventy-nine of those were diagnosed with the virus, for a positive testing rate of 32%.

An even bigger issue is that with many of the participants refusing to get tested, infections associated with the Gwanghwamun rally have spread to 13 metropolitan cities and provinces nationwide.

Gwangju in particular saw over 50 new confirmed cases in a two-day period after rally participants attended local churches. On Aug. 27, the city issued an administrative order applying the equivalent of Level 3 social distancing guidelines. Until noon on Sept. 10, Gwangju will be subject to guidelines including the permission of only remote activities by religious establishments; a ban on assemblies for collective athletic activities; a ban on assemblies at arcades, senior citizen centers, and public baths; and a ban on gatherings of 10 or more people at after-school academies and “kid’s cafés.”

“Nobody can say that what we’re seeing right now represents the peak,” said Choi Won-suk, a professor of infectious disease at Korea University Ansan Hospital. “It will be difficult to control the emergence of patients at its current level.”

Hur Ji-an, a professor of infectious disease at Yeungnam University Medical Center, said, “They’re talking about how the Liberation Day rally was a problem, but it’s the government that designated a substitute holiday on Aug. 17 and created a long weekend [presenting greater risk of coronavirus transmission].”

“In effect, the government sent the signal that it was breaking down everyday quarantine guidelines,” Heo argued.

By Kim Mi-na and Park Jun-yong, staff reporters, and Jung Dae-ha, Gwangju correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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