By Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea added its most new virus cases in months on Friday, driven by a surge around the capital that appears to be spreading nationwide.

The 324 new infections was its highest single day total since early March and the eighth consecutive triple-digit daily increase.

Most of the people recently infected live in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan region, where health workers are scrambling to track transmissions from various sources, including churches, restaurants, schools and workers.

But the new infections reported Friday were from practically all of South Korea’s major cities, including Busan, Gwangju, Daejeon, Sejong and Daegu, the southeastern city that was the epicenter of a massive outbreak in late February and March.

The newest figures reported by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention brought the nation’s caseload to 16,670, including 309 deaths.

Health authorities managed to contain the virus in the Daegu region by April, ramping up tests and using cellphone location data, credit-card records and security camera videos to trace and isolate contacts, which allowed the country to weather the outbreak without placing meaningful restrictions on its economy.

Another factor was that the narrowness of the Daegu outbreak effectively aided its containment - most were linked to a single church congregation of thousands of members.

It’s unclear whether South Korea’s previous formula of success will be as effective since the Seoul region has many more people and new clusters are occurring in various places as people increasingly venture out in public.

Churches had been a major source of new cases in the Seoul area before authorities shut them this week while raising social distancing restrictions, something they had resisted for months out of economic concerns. Nightclubs, karaoke bars, buffet restaurants and computer gaming cafes are also closed and spectators have been banned again from baseball and soccer games.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the KCDC, said the government should consider stronger distancing measures - possibly including banning gatherings of over 10 people, shutting schools, halting professional sports and advising companies to have employees work from home - if the virus’s spread doesn’t slow after the weekend.

Jeong said country is now conducting 50,000 tests per day, compared to around 20,000 per day during the Daegu outbreak.

She said 732 infections have been linked to a Seoul church led by a vocal critic of the country’s president. Sarang Jeil Church pastor Jun Kwang-hun was hospitalized with COVID-19 on Monday after participating in an anti-government protest last week where he shared a microphone on stage with other activists.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

- Hong Kong will offer free, universal testing to its residents starting Sept. 1. The testing program, which will last a maximum of two weeks, is on a voluntary basis. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said that universal testing was possible due to support from Beijing, which provided resources such as laboratory staff to boost capacity in the semi-autonomous city. The program is aimed at identifying individuals who are infected but have exhibited no symptoms. The city, with a population of 7.5 million, has conducted over 1.2 million tests so far. Critics of the universal testing program say that there may be potential privacy concerns, given that the program is supported by the Chinese Communist Party. Lam brushed aside such concerns, stating that no matter what the government did, there will always be people who come up with conspiracy theories.

- Papua New Guinea says it halted the arrival of Chinese workers after a Chinese mining company claimed to have immunized employees against COVID-19 in an apparent vaccination trial. A pandemic response official banned COVID-19 vaccine testing or trials in the South Pacific island nation after Ramu NiCo Management claimed to have vaccinated 48 Chinese employees. Papua New Guinea says any vaccine imported into the country must be approved by PNG’s health authorities and must be pre-qualified by the World Health Organization. An official says the country is seeking further information from China.

- India’s coronavirus caseload crosses 2.9 million with a surge of 68,898 in the past 24 hours. The Health Ministry on Friday also reported 983 more deaths, taking total fatalities to 54,849. India has been recording at least 50,000 new infections per day since mid-July. Four of India’s 28 states now account for 63% of fatalities and 54.6% of cases. Western Maharashtra state and three southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are the worst-hit. The Health Ministry said more than 900,000 tests are being done and the rate of tests that are positive for the virus is averaging 8%, but it will be lowered through isolation, tracking and clinical management.

- The governor of Iwate in northern Japan said the national government’s “Go To” travel campaign should be considered “a failure,” noting the growing number of coronavirus cases. “To start it in July was a bit too soon as preparations weren’t complete. It was carried out too soon, and so I think it can be called a failure,” Gov. Takuya Tasso told reporters. Iwate had zero COVID-19 cases until a month ago and its 11 cases since are still the lowest among Japan’s prefectures. Tasso said factors for the area’s success included its low population congestion, limited travel and people’s awareness of crisis management after Iwate was devastated by the 2011 tsunami. The “Go To” campaign promoted travel to areas of the country except Tokyo to help the badly hit tourism industry.

- Australia’s hard-hit Victoria state on Friday reported its lowest tally of new coronavirus cases in more than six weeks. Victoria’s Health Department reported 179 new infections and nine deaths in the latest 24-hour period, the lowest daily increase since July 8. The state capital Melbourne has been under a strict lockdown for two weeks, and authorities have said daily infections will have to fall to single digits or low double digits before Melbourne’s lockdown is relaxed.

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