December 14, 2020 09:40
Daily coronavirus infections surpassed 1,000 over the weekend as a bitter winter descended on the country. Some 1,030 cases were added on Sunday morning, the most since the outbreak of the epidemic here in January. On Monday morning the tally fell again to 718 cases, but that was probably because fewer tests were conducted over the weekend.
President Moon Jae-in said during a meeting with top health officials Sunday, "If we do not stem the spread of infections now, we stand at a very critical moment of having to consider going into full lockdown."
"Be prepared to make a bold decision if the disaster headquarters deems it necessary." He admitted that such a move will entail "unimaginable pain and damage" and stressed that it would only be considered as a "final option."
The government ignored warnings of a shortage of hospital beds during the winter flu season and failed to live up to its pledge earlier this year to secure 10,000 beds to treat serious cases. On Sunday, Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo told reporters, "We will secure more than 10,000 hospital beds over the next three weeks on the assumption that 1,000 new cases will be detected every day over the next 20 days."
Experts said quarantine efforts face a major obstacle due to the shortage compounded by mounting fatigue among medical workers and rising public anxiety.
Publicizing Korea's plans to secure coronavirus vaccines, Moon said only last Wednesday that the "end of the long tunnel is in sight." But just four days later, the president had to apologize for the surge in infections.
Ma Sang-hyuk of a doctors' association in South Gyeongsang Province said, "Families who live with elderly people should wear masks even at home and eat meals separately. When you see infections surge, you need to be wary of spreading the virus even to family members."
Experts advise avoiding gatherings over the festive season, warning that failure to do so could lead to the collapse of the country's medical infrastructure.
If a full lockdown is imposed, most stores and businesses will have to close, with the exception of hospitals, pharmacies, gas stations and hotels. Businesses will also have to let all their staff work from home, and gatherings of more than 10 people will be banned with a few exceptions like funerals.
Professional sports games will also be stopped to keep athletes from coming into contact with each other, while the KTX bullet trains and express buses will only be allowed to transport 50 percent of their capacity.
The government is expected to announce the full lockdown as early as Tuesday depending on the number of new infections.
Prof. Choi Jae-wook at Korea University's College of Medicine, said, "It looks like we'll have to wait until next October until we can get our hands on the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which the U.K. and the U.S. have already or are set to begin injecting. It worries me that we have to fight this battle against COVID-19 without vaccines."
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