SEOUL – South Korea is closing schools and returning to remote learning in the capital region as the country counted its 12th straight day of triple-digit daily increases in coronavirus cases.
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said Tuesday that at least 193 students and teachers were found infected over the past two weeks in the Seoul metropolitan region, where a viral surge has threatened to erase the country’s hard-won epidemiological gains.
South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 280 new cases of COVID-19, pushing the 12-day total to 3,175. The country’s caseload is now at 17,945, including 310 deaths.
Yoo said most children at kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools will receive online classes at least until Sept. 11. High-school seniors will continue to go to school so their studies are not disrupted ahead of the crucial national college exams.
The country delayed the start of the school year for weeks because of an outbreak in the southeast in spring before proceeding with phased reopenings beginning in May.
Keeping schools shut are a difficult political decision in a country where teenagers are thrown into hyper-competitive school environments because graduating from elite universities is seen as crucial to career prospects.
“The priority is to quickly stem the spread of transmissions and stabilize the situation, if only to hold the Dec. 3 national college entrance exam as planned without disruption,” Yoo said in a news conference.
The KCDC said 221 of the new cases came from the greater Seoul area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people, where churches emerged as major sources of infections before authorities shut them amid tightened social distancing restrictions. Infections have also been linked to schools, nurseries and other places.
The country since Sunday has banned larger gatherings, shut down nightspots and churches and removed fans from professional sports nationwide. Officials say the country could be forced to elevate social distancing restrictions if the virus doesn’t slow after this week, measures that would batter an already weak economy.
Churches had been emerged as major sources of COVID-19 cases before authorities banned on-site worship services.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 915 infections were linked to a northern Seoul church whose pastor led a march of thousands of anti-government protesters earlier this month. The pastor is among those who developed COVID-19.
Nearly 200 infections have been linked to the Aug. 15 rallies as health authorities pleaded church members and protesters to come forward for testing. Many have remained out of contact or refused to get tested. Officials have expressed concern over conspiracy theories that the government was manipulating test results in a plot to shut down the church.
“I plead to you once once again: if we contact you and ask you to get tested, please get tested,” said Kwon Jun-wook, director of South Korea’s National Health Institute, during a virus briefing. “COVID-19 can’t distinguish between political stances. It doesn’t know the different kinds of religions that exist. It doesn’t have a concept of ideology or beliefs. There’s no way a virus has such things.”
In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:
— India has reported more than 60,000 new infections, taking its total to 3.17 million. The Health Ministry also reported 848 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking total fatalities past 58,000. The recovery rate has reached nearly 76% as the Health Ministry added its highest number of recovered patients in a day, more than 66,500. Testing has also increased dramatically. Nearly a third of the tests being used are a fast, cheap test that screens for antigens, or viral proteins, rather than the molecular tests that detect the genetic code of the virus. The faster, cheaper ones are less accurate and require frequent retesting.
— Hong Kong will ease some social distancing measures as coronavirus infections dwindle. A ban on dining inside restaurants during evening hours will be eased Friday. Businesses such as cinemas, beauty salons and some outdoor sports venues can reopen. And masks won’t be required for exercising outdoors or while in country parks. Hong Kong’s health minister said it is no longer possible to wait until there are no more local cases before relaxing social distancing. An infection surge in July had led to Hong Kong’s toughest social-distancing measures yet. Since then infections have gradually dwindled. Monday was the first day in a month infections were in the single digits.
— Beijing universities are preparing to administer virus tests to students returning to the city’s campuses. The cost of testing all 600,000 students will be born by the universities themselves, according to the Beijing Municipal Education Commission. University classes are scheduled to begin Sept. 9. Roughly 75 percent of Chinese students in lower grades returned to class by last month, many on staggered schedules. The rest are expected to return by this week or on Sept. 1. China's National Health Commission on Tuesday reported no new local infections for a ninth straight day and said 14 new cases were found in travelers arriving from abroad. The northwestern city of Urumqi, the center of China’s most recent major outbreak, was relaxing restrictions on some residential compounds after several days of no new local infections.
— Australian hot spot Victoria state on Tuesday recorded an increase in new coronavirus cases, although health authorities are confident infections are continuing to trend lower. Victoria’s Health Department reported 148 new infections in the latest 24-hour period and eight deaths. State capital Melbourne is around half way through a six-week lockdown.