Spike in South Korea virus cases shows perils of reopening


SEOUL: As Mediterranean beaches and Las Vegas casinos laid out plans to welcome tourists again, South Korea announced a spike in new infections Wednesday and considered reimposing social distancing restrictions, revealing the setbacks ahead for others on the road to reopening.

The European Union was unveiling a huge stimulus package for the bloc’s ailing economies, as European nations scrambled to emulate South Korea’s widely praised strategy of tracing, testing and treating coronavirus victims, which tamed its outbreak and made it a model for the world.

The EU’s economics commissioner, Paulo Gentiloni, called the 750 billion-euro ($825 billion) recovery fund “a European turning point to face an unprecedented crisis.”

Across the Atlantic, the pandemic was claiming new victims as the confirmed US death toll approached 100,000 — the highest by far in the world — and nations from Mexico to Chile to Brazil struggled with surging cases and overwhelmed hospitals.

In South Korea, 40 newly confirmed cases — the biggest daily jump in nearly 50 days — raised alarms as millions of children returned to school Wednesday.

All but four of the new cases were in the densely populated Seoul region, where officials are scrambling to stop transmissions linked to nightclubs, karaoke rooms and a massive e-commerce warehouse. All were reopened last month when social distancing measures were relaxed.

The country’s top infectious disease expert said South Korea may need to reimpose social distancing restrictions because it’s becoming increasingly difficult for health workers to track the spread of COVID-19 amid warmer weather and eased attitudes on distancing.

“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures, but there’s a limit to such efforts,” said Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Young people have a very broad range of activity, so at the point of diagnosis, there’s already a lot of exposure … the number of people or locations we have to trace are increasing geometrically,” he added.

Seoul and nearby cities in recent weeks have re-closed thousands of bars, karaoke rooms and other entertainment venues to slow the spread of the virus.

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