Asia Today: S. Korea marks deadliest day, over 1,000 cases

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People queue in line to wait for a coronavirus test near a display of South Korea's capital Seoul logo in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. South Korea has added more than 1,000 infections to its coronavirus caseload for the second straight day amid growing fears that the virus is spreading out of control in the greater capital area. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL – South Korea has added more than 1,000 infections to its coronavirus caseload for the second straight day amid growing fears that the virus is spreading out of control in the greater capital area.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Thursday said the COVID-19 death toll was now at 634 after 22 patients died in the past 24 hours, the deadliest day since the emergence of the pandemic. Among 12,209 active patients, 242 are in serious or critical condition.

Nearly 800 of the 1,014 new cases were reported from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, where health officials have raised alarm about a looming shortage in hospital capacities. Thursday marked the 40th consecutive day of triple digit daily jumps, which brought the national caseload to 46,453.

The viral resurgence came after months of pandemic fatigue, complacency and government efforts to breathe life into a sluggish economy.

Officials are now mulling whether to raise social distancing restriction to maximum levels, which could possibly include bans on gatherings of more than 10 people, shutting tens of thousands of businesses deemed non-essential and requiring companies to have more employees work from home.

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region:

— The World Health Organization says the coming COVID-19 vaccines will not end the pandemic quickly and countries of the Western Pacific region are not guaranteed to have early access to the shots. WHO Regional Director Dr. Takeshi Kasai says the vaccines are not “a silver bullet that will end the pandemic in the near future.” He says, “The development of safe and effective vaccines is one thing. Producing them in adequate quantities and reaching everyone who needs them is another.” While some countries that have independent vaccine purchase agreements might start vaccination campaigns in the coming months, others could see vaccination begin in the middle or late 2021, said Dr. Socorro Escalante, WHO's coordinator for essential medicines and health technologies. “It’s important to emphasize that most, if not all, the countries in the Western Pacific region are a part of the COVAX Facility,” said Escalante. COVAX was set up by WHO, vaccines alliance GAVI and CEPI, a global coalition to fight epidemics, in an effort to ensure equitable access to vaccines across the world. WHO representatives also urged that high-risk groups should be prioritized for vaccination as vaccines will only be available in limited quantities.

— Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on Thursday declared “a special coronavirus alert,” urging residents to share a sense of crisis over accelerating infections, as new cases in the capital rose sharply Thursday to 822, a new high. It exceeded the earlier record of 678 set Wednesday and brought the capital's total to 49,490. The alert is largely a verbal warning against complacency during the rise in cases since early November, with experts saying a greater number of serious cases is forcing hospitals to reduce care for non-coronavirus patients. Koike said Thursday’s spike and the experts’ assessment of Tokyo’s medical system “struck me with a strong sense of crisis, and I need to share this with all residents of Tokyo.” She urged people to avoid parties and non-essential out-of-town trips and asked organizers to consider canceling New Year’s Eve countdown events. Infections have been on a steady climb nationwide for several weeks. Japan now has 187,103 confirmed cases, up 2,988 from Wednesday, including 2,739 deaths. Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center, warned of an explosion in infections if they continue spreading at the current pace, and called for more tests to quickly find and isolate patients. Japan has not had a compulsory lockdown and has survived earlier waves of infections, but experts say the current resurgence during the cold season could be a bigger challenge, especially with half of new cases now untraceable.