SEOUL: South Korea reported a three-digit increase in novel coronavirus cases for a fifth consecutive day on Tuesday (Aug 18), as authorities scrambled to trace hundreds of members of a church congregation, and the military locked down bases to counter the spread of the virus.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 246 new cases as of Monday (Aug 17) midnight, two days after the reimposition of stricter social distancing curbs in the Seoul metropolitan area.
South Korea has been one of the world's coronavirus mitigation success stories but it has suffered repeated spikes in infections and the total number of cases stood at 15,761, including 306 deaths.
"If we can't get the virus under control now we'll have to notch up social distancing to higher levels, and that would have a big impact on our economy and people's livelihoods," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a news conference after an emergency meeting.
At least 457 infections have been linked to the Sarang Jeil Church, 10 of whom were confirmed to have attended anti-government demonstrations over the past two weekends in Seoul, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a briefing.
Authorities were trying to trace some 500 other members of the congregation to tell them to self-quarantine and get tested as they posed the highest transmission risk, Kim said.
This was the second time a church was at the centre of a serious outbreak in South Korea.
In February, authorities struggled with an outbreak that emerged in a secretive Christian sect in the city of Daegu, which turned into the country's deadliest cluster.
The KCDC has warned that the new cases posed a greater crisis than the earlier church outbreak and could swamp the health system.
"If the spread ... is not contained this week, it can not only halt the daily routine of the metropolitan area, with a 25 million population, but also put the safety of the elderly and the weak at risk," KCDC deputy director Kwon Jun-wook told a briefing.
Another cluster has been traced to a Starbucks outlet outside Seoul with seven new cases taking the tally there to 49.
Two new cases were reported in the military, bringing the total on military bases to 88, the defence ministry said.
A total of 461 military personnel were in quarantine, and all troops have been confined to their bases, with leave cancelled and visits halted for the rest of August.
The Seoul metropolitan area is under phase 2 restrictions, limiting indoor gatherings to fewer than 50 people and outdoor gatherings to no more than 100, and banning spectators from sporting events.
Health authorities had categorised social distancing rules in three stages - stage 1 being the least intense and stage 3 the toughest, where schools are shut down, businesses are advised to work from home and limits gatherings to below 10.
Kwon said the effort was at a "grave crossroads".
"If not controlled and restrained at this level, we can't avoid an upgraded phase 3 social distancing," he said.