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South Korea virus cases make biggest jump in 50 days

/ 03:02 PM May 28, 2020

Passengers wearing face masks prepare to board their planes at the domestic flight terminal of Gimpo airport in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. The quarantine authorities on Wednesday began to require all airplane passengers to wear masks amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

BANGKOK — South Korea on Thursday reported its biggest jump in coronavirus cases in more than 50 days, a setback that could erase some of its hard-won gains. Health officials warned that the resurgence is getting harder to track and social distancing and other steps need to be taken.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 67 of the 79 new cases reported were from the Seoul metropolitan area, where about half of South Korea’s 51 million people live.

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Health Minister Park Neung-hoo called for residents in the metropolitan area to avoid unnecessary gatherings and urged companies to keep sick employees off work.

At least 69 infections so far have been linked to workers at a massive warehouse operated by local e-commerce giant Coupang. Hundreds of other infections have been linked to nightclubs and other entertainment venues, which saw huge crowds in early May after officials relaxed social distancing guidelines.

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It remains to be seen whether the recent spike in infections will force back a phased reopening of schools, which had been a major accomplishment in the nation’s anti-virus campaign. The Education Ministry on Wednesday said class openings were delayed at 561 schools nationwide because of virus concerns.

South Korea was reporting around 500 new cases per day in early March before managing to stabilize its outbreak with aggressive tracking and testing, which allowed officials to relax social distancing guidelines.

KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong said the country may need to reimpose social distancing restrictions, noting it’s becoming increasingly difficult for health workers to track transmissions amid increasing public activity.

“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures, but there’s a limit to such efforts,” she said. “There’s a need to maximize social distancing in areas where the virus is circulating, to force people to avoid public facilities and other crowded spaces.”

Seoul and nearby cities restored some of the controls in recent weeks by shutting thousands of bars, karaoke rooms, and other entertainment venues to slow the spread of the virus.

The country also began requiring masks on public transit and airline flights this week. Taxi drivers are now allowed to refuse passengers not wearing masks.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s central bank lowered its policy rate to an all-time low of 0.5% to soften the pandemic’s shock to the country’s trade-dependent economy. The Bank of Korea also adjusted its annual growth outlook from a 2.1% expansion to a 0.2% contraction.

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The country’s economy hasn’t seen an annual contraction since 1998. The nation’s economy shrank 1.4% during the first three months of the year as people stayed home and exports shrank amid worldwide lockdowns.

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