South Korea reported another high in daily coronavirus increases as health officials face growing pressure to enforce stricter social distancing to slow the spread in the capital area.
The 1,078 cases confirmed by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Wednesday brought the national caseload to 45,442.
The death toll was 612 after 25 Covid-19 patients died in the past 48 hours, the two deadliest days since the outbreak began.
The agency said 226 among 11,883 active patients were in serious or critical condition, which was also the most since the start of the pandemic, as fears grow about a possible shortage in hospital capacities.
Senior health ministry official Yoon Taeho said authorities were discussing whether to elevate social distancing restrictions to the highest Tier 3, which could possibly including banning gatherings of more than 10 people, shutting non-essential businesses, and requiring companies to have more employees work from home.
“Tier 3 social distancing is the last and strongest measure that we could take, which would cause widespread damage to the self-employed,” he said.
“We are hearing the opinions of experts, including those from central government agencies and regional governments … while deeply reviewing whether to elevate the measures.”
More than 770 of the new infections were reported from the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people, where new clusters are popping up from just about everywhere, including churches, hospitals, long-term care facilities, schools, restaurants, army units and prisons.
Infections were also reported in other major cities, including Busan, Daejeon, Ulsan and Daegu.
Critics say the country let its guard down by easing social distancing to the lowest in October out of concerns about sluggish economic growth rates despite warnings of a viral surge during the winter, when people spend longer hours indoors.
The government restored some restrictions over the past weeks, such as shutting down nightclubs, halting in-person school classes and requiring restaurants to provide only deliveries and takeouts after 9pm.