Nov 30—7 am—Level 1.5 or higher nationwide, saunas and gyms closed in Greater Seoul
Infections: 33,824 | Cleared: 27,542 | Under treatment: 5,759 | Deaths: 523
(As of Nov 29, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
After four straight days in the 500s, the number of new cases dipped slightly on Sunday, with 449 positive test results reported. For Korea, these high numbers are an alarming trend not seen since February. The cases in this third wave are not connected to one big superspreader group or event as before, but are being transmitted at many different gatherings, as well as facilities such as nursing homes, churches, saunas, gyms, schools, and restaurants. The greater Seoul region is still the biggest hot spot with 70% of the cases, but the rest are dispersed around the country. One positive trend is that, at least for now, the proportion of patients over 60 has been decreasing, with many of the new cases identified among young adults, who are less likely to suffer serious symptoms or require hospitalization.
Simply going by the numbers, the greater Seoul region now meets the criteria for applying social distancing Level 2.5. On Sunday, however, the Minister of Health and Welfare called an urgent press briefing to announce that Greater Seoul will continue with Level 2, albeit with some additional social distancing measures, and all other regions will implement at least Level 1.5. Some regions may bring in Level 2 if the local government deems it appropriate, and right now this includes Busan, the western part of Gangwon Province, and the provinces of South Gyeonggi, South Chungcheong, and North Jeolla. The changes will take effect on December 1 and last for a week in Greater Seoul, and for two weeks in other regions.
In their latest version, the Level 2 guidelines pinpoint certain types of facilities where clusters have been found most recently. Saunas, indoor gyms, and music studios must close. Multipurpose facilities in apartment complexes, such as gyms, saunas, cafes, and libraries, should also remain closed. End-of-year parties in hotel rooms, halls, and guesthouses are prohibited. And all other similar gatherings are strongly advised against.
This “Level 2+α” (as news articles are beginning to call it) for the greater Seoul region feels frustratingly tentative given the speed of spread and the rapidly diminishing number of available ICU beds for Covid-19 patients. But it has come about through negotiations with local governments, disease specialists, and multiple other community stakeholders. The outcome is a balance between minimizing the negative impact on small business owners and curbing the spread in the specific types of places where the majority of clusters have been identified. Besides, the effects of new social distancing measures tend to become apparent in ten to fourteen days, so the previously implemented Level 1.5 for Seoul would be expected to show signs of impact by the middle of this week, and the original Level 2 restrictions by early next week. The KCDA is advising us to wait for the already instituted measures to take effect.
Nov 23—8am—Cases in the 300s and Level 2 for Seoul:The start of a third wave in Korea?
Infections: 30,733 | Cleared: 26,466 | Under treatment: 3,762 | Deaths: 505
(As of Nov 22, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The daily number of new cases has stayed above 300 for the past five days. Transmissions from community spread have reached over 300 nationwide, with 200 of those in the greater Seoul region. The increase has been much faster than was predicted just last week and the R number has now risen to 1.6. The average number of new cases doubled to 256 last week (November 15 to 21) from 122 in the previous week. At this rate, cases could hit the 400 mark some time this week and reach 600 by early December.
The weekly averages in each region do not yet meet the conditions for raising the social distancing level. But, given the rate of increase and especially the national college entrance exams due to take place at the beginning of December, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters decided to preemptively raise the social distancing level to 2 in the greater Seoul region (including Incheon) and 1.5 in North and South Jeolla Provinces. These new levels will go into effect at midnight on Tuesday, November 24, and will remain until at least Monday, December 7.
According to the new guidelines for social distancing Level 2, five types of priority facilities, including nightclubs and bars, should now shut down in Greater Seoul. Cafes may admit take-out customers only, and restaurants must close at 9pm, though they may continue deliveries. Indoor gyms, karaoke rooms, and indoor music venues must also close at 9pm. Weddings, funerals, and other events must limit attendees to fewer than 100 people. Sports arenas must not admit more than 10% of their spectator capacity. High schools may bring in two-thirds of the students at a time while other schools should limit pupil numbers to one-third, though this may be negotiated with the local ministry of education. Places of worship should limit attendees at regular weekly services to less than 20%, and other informal religious gatherings or communal meals are prohibited. Clearly we are now at the beginning of a third wave in South Korea.
Nov 17—3pm—Level 1.5 for the greater Seoul region
Infections: 28,998 | Cleared: 25,860 | Under treatment: 2,644 | Deaths: 494
(As of Nov 17, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Today it was announced that Social Distancing Level 1.5 will go into effect for the greater Seoul region starting November 19. The decision is based on seeing an average of 111.3 cases in the past week and that, of these, an average of 39.7 were people over the age of 60. But since 96% of these cases were identified in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, the city of Incheon, which is part of the greater Seoul region, may decide to ease some restrictions in certain districts.
Gangwon Province has also met the criteria to raise its Social Distancing Level to 1.5, but seeing as its cases are concentrated in only one part of the region, the provincial government may decide to raise restrictions in certain areas only.
The level increases will be maintained for at least the next two weeks.
The head of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency also warned, yesterday, that we are at R 1.12 and the virus is spreading much faster than we can contain. At this rate we could see 300 to 400 cases per day within the next two to four weeks.
Nov 16—7:30am—New cases up to the 200s
Infections: 28.564 | Cleared: 25,691 | Under treatment: 2,362 | Deaths: 493
(As of Nov 15, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new Covid-19 infections rose steadily last week, and by the weekend the daily number of new cases was over 200 for the first time since August. Cases from community spread were 166 on Saturday (Seoul: 63, Gyeonggi Province: 46, Gangwon Province: 18) and 176 on Sunday (Seoul: 81, Gyeonggi Province: 41, Gangwon Province: 19). The government’s weekly report showed that the greater Seoul region had an average of 83.4 daily cases last week, coming close to the 100 mark, which would trigger a move up to Level 1.5 restrictions. Gangwon Province is also seeing a steep increase. The city of Wonju in Gangwon Province already implemented Level 1.5 on November 9, but cases are now being reported in many other parts of the province as well, raising the provincial average to over 10 new cases per day. The Minister of Health and Welfare reported on Sunday that the government has officially warned the greater Seoul region and Gangwon Province to prepare for the implementation of Level 1.5.
The recent cases have tended to be transmitted through small scale family gatherings, or in poorly ventilated workplaces where it is difficult for employees to keep their masks on. Yesterday the Minister of Health and Welfare strongly appealed to the public to practice good social distancing in order to avoid further measures that would disrupt daily life and be detrimental to businesses.
The annual national college entrance exams are to take place on December 3 and so the government is declaring November 19 to December 3 a special “pandemic prevention week”. Specifically, hagwon and PC cafes frequented by children and teenagers will be under scrutiny. The rest of the nation is being urged to take extra precautions for the sake of the students who will soon take the most important exams of their lives.
Nov 13—7:30am—Watching the number of cases, mask mandate
Infections: 27,942 | Cleared: 25,404 | Under treatment: 2,051 | Deaths: 487
(As of Nov 12, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new cases has been steadily rising, and on four days this week more than 100 new cases were identified from community transmission. But, with the exception of a few cities, the cases in each region remain within the range of Level 1 in the new social distancing scheme. The government is watching for a sudden surge in the numbers, and continues to warn the public that it could happen at any time.
The mask mandate starts today. Everyone is required to wear masks at all times in public places, except when consuming food or in saunas, but even in those situations visitors should put their masks back on as soon as they can. Even before the mandate, most people were compliant with the general guidance to wear masks, though there were some highly publicized incidents of individuals violently protesting. The fear of fines may now motivate most people to keep their masks on and wear them properly, covering the nose and mouth.
Nov 9—8am—Adjusting to the new social distancing scheme
Infections: 27,427 | Cleared: 24,968 | Under treatment: 1,980 | Deaths: 478
(As of Nov 9, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
On Saturday, the nation began transitioning to the new social distancing system. The daily average of new Covid-19 cases was 88.7 for the week of November 1 to 7, compared to 86.9 in the previous week. To clarify, the number of new cases among foreign arrivals don’t count as an indicator, because they go through a two-week quarantine on arrival. The distribution of cases stayed within the bounds of Level 1 for most regions—that is, under 100 cases for the greater Seoul region, under 10 for Gangwon and Jeju provinces, and under 30 for all other provinces. The cities of Cheonan and Asan in South Chungcheong Province have implemented Level 1.5 since November 5 due to some recent outbreaks there. But most of the new cases continue to be found in the greater Seoul region, which averaged 65.4 new cases this week.
While the number of clusters fell from 16 to 7 in the past week, the ratio of cases whose origin is yet to be traced went up from 8.4%, in the week of October 18 to 24, to 12.8% then 12.7% in the following two weeks. This is a sign that the virus continues to disperse through casual everyday encounters rather than large events. Fortunately, no major cluster has been traced to the Halloween festivities in October.
In its weekly report each Sunday, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters has also started to include the average number of cases among people over the age of 60, as well as the number of empty ICU beds available for Covid-19 patients. Cases in the over 60s increased to an average of 25.8 in the week of November 1 to 7 compared to 22.7 in the previous week, and the number of available beds on November 7 stood at 137 nationwide. Currently there are around 50 patients requiring intensive care.
In the new social distancing scheme, the electronic check-in system with temporary QR codes has become a requirement for restaurants and cafes larger than 150 sq m, along with other “priority” facilities. The electronic system was thus far only optional for restaurants, if they opted to simply take names and contact details on paper. These venues are now required to use the electronic system, partly to prevent personal contact information from falling into the wrong hands. Restaurants and cafes have a one-month grace period to make the transition.
The nationwide mask mandate in public places has been in effect for several weeks, but from November 13 people may be fined up to ₩100,000 for failing to follow the rules. At the same time, cost-free masks will be provided to nursing homes, orphanages, and other vulnerable populations, as well as to the police and the military. Masks will also be at hand at local community centers, libraries, and public transport stations either free of charge or for a fee.
Nov 6—8:30am—Guidelines for new categories of “priority” and “regular” businesses and venues
Infections: 27,050 | Cleared: 24,735 | Under treatment: 1,840 | Deaths: 475
(As of Nov 5, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The guidelines for the new social distancing levels that will go into effect this Saturday name nine types of “priority” facilities and 14 types of “regular” facilities. These categories are a change from the previous three-tier system of high, medium, and low-risk facilities. One reason for the change is that identifying certain places as “high-risk” has unnecessarily stigmatized certain businesses, while social distancing has been comparatively neglected in so-called “low-risk” venues. In the new two-tier system, five different types of bars and clubs, plus karaoke rooms, indoor standing-only music venues, door-to-door sales headquarters, as well as restaurants and cafes are to be classed as priority facilities because of the many transmission clusters that have been identified at these places. They also tend to be densely packed and involve activities in which mask wearing is difficult. As for “regular” facilities, these comprise internet cafes, wedding halls, funeral homes, hagwons, job training centers, saunas, concert halls, cinemas, theme parks and water parks, arcades and multi-bangs, indoor fitness centers, hair salons, supermarkets and malls, and study rooms/cafes. Contact and transmission are also very likely in these regular types of facilities, so the public is being advised to exercise caution when visiting them.
At Level 1, according to the new guidelines, mask wearing, checking in with a QR code or leaving a contact number, and regular ventilation and disinfection of premises are mandatory everywhere. By Level 3 (the highest level), most places, except essential venues such as hospitals, markets, and funeral homes, should close their doors. Between Levels 1 and 3, businesses must progressively increase social distancing by limiting the number of customers and visitors, and shortening their operating hours. There are different guidelines for businesses at each of the five social distancing levels, depending on whether they are a regular or priority facility. The utility of identifying certain types of businesses is to observe them closely for their adherence to guidelines and subject them to administrative action if necessary. The lists may change if transmission clusters are identified at other types of venues.
Notice that churches are not identified among the priority or regular facilities, despite the fact that, between January and September, 2,398 cases were traced to religious venues (not counting those related to Shincheonji). Other venues to which cases were often traced were door-to-door sales businesses (1,110 cases), night clubs (278 cases), and restaurants or cafes (119 cases). In this new system, a separate set of guidelines will apply to all religious venues. At Level 1, venues must provide suitably distanced seating by leaving an empty seat between each occupied one, and informal gatherings and communal meals are discouraged, though still allowed. Events that last more than a day, requiring room and board, are prohibited. From Level 1.5 upward, informal gatherings and communal meals no longer allowed. The number of attendants will also be progressively limited from 30% at Level 1.5 to 20% at Level 2. At Level 2.5 the gatherings should be moved online, but up to 20 people may still gather to produce online content. At Level 3 all the logistics should also be coordinated online, without on-site gatherings.
Schools are subject to relatively more flexible criteria. At Level 1, schools should limit class sizes to two-thirds of the normal attendance, though certain schools and regions may choose to admit more or fewer students depending on their situation. At Level 1.5, the two-thirds limit should be more strictly applied. At Level 2, high schools may continue to admit two-thirds of pupils while most other schools should decrease class sizes to one-third. At Level 2.5, schools should stick to a maximum of one-third capacity, and at Level 3 all classes should move to distance learning.
There are also many more guidelines for other types of venues such as sports arenas, social service centers, public museums and galleries, and gatherings such as festivals, seminars, and rallies. In general, the guidelines don’t drastically differ from the previous system. While it is prudent to hammer out the details and decide on all the criteria and guidelines before a potential third wave in the coming winter, all the finer points seem difficult to keep track of. Education, training, and repeated reminders for businesses and the general public will be necessary if these measures are to sink in.
Nov 2—8:30am—New social distancing levels to come into effect this weekend
Infections: 26,635 | Cleared: 24,357 | Under treatment: 1,812 | Deaths: 466
(As of Nov 1, 12:00am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
A major announcement from the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters yesterday revealed that the current three levels of social distancing will be subdivided into five, effective from Saturday, November 7. These levels have been officially designated Levels 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3. Following discussions with medical experts, the government has decided to focus more on reducing the number of high-risk patients than tackling the total number of positive cases, so that the entire process will be sustainable not only for public health but also for economic and social welfare. The government acknowledged that the differences between social distancing levels had previously been too steep, and that measures should be applied flexibly depending on regional circumstances. They also concluded that Korea now has the medical experience and capacity to be able to treat more high-risk patients than before.
In the new alert system, social distancing levels will be determined from the average number of new cases observed over one week instead of two, and will also depend on the medical capacity of the affected region. In greater Seoul, social distancing Level 1 will apply as long as there are fewer than 100 new cases per day for a week. In other regions, more than 30 positive cases or, in the case of Gangwon and Jeju Provinces, more than 10 cases per day for a week would be enough to raise the alert to Level 1.5.
Level 2 will go into effect in any of the following situations: the number of new cases in a region doubles within a week of the alert level being raised to 1.5; Level 1.5 persists and the number of cases shows signs of increase after a week in two or more administrative regions; the total number of new cases across the country exceeds 300 for more than a week and continues to increase. At Level 2, all gatherings of 100 or more people will be prohibited, both indoors and outdoors. But at this stage the social distancing measures will still only apply to affected regions.
If the average number of new cases exceeds 400 for a week or the number of patients doubles in that time, the social distancing level will be raised to 2.5 and measures will then be applied nationwide. At Level 2.5, all gatherings of 50 people or more will be prohibited and businesses must close by 9 pm. Finally, Level 3 will be announced if there are over 800 new cases per day. All gatherings of ten people or more will be prohibited, and all except essential businesses must shut down.
Factors other than the number of new cases will also be considered, such as the number of elderly patients, the region’s capacity to control the spread and treat patients, and the proportion of untraceable cases. Given that these factors will now be calculated over a shorter time period—one week instead of two—the authorities will be able to alert the public to any increase in the social distancing level with more advance notice than previously. Lowering the level would take longer than a week-long assessment.
Different types of businesses will need to follow their own specific guidelines for each level, which I will explore in more detail in upcoming posts.