South Korea tops 1,000 COVID-19 deaths as outbreak slows

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SEOUL, Jan. 5 (UPI) — South Korea saw its COVID-19 death toll surpass 1,000 on Tuesday, but health officials said that the curve appears to be flattening on a third wave of the virus that has been spreading since mid-November.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 26 new deaths and 715 new infections Tuesday. The daily cases mark a steep decline from the 1,020 recorded Monday and a drop from the daily average last week of nearly 900.

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“Today we saw the first downturn of the third wave,” senior KDCA official Lee Sang-won said at a press briefing Tuesday. “Last week, we saw the reproductive rate of the virus fall below 1.”

The reproductive number of a virus, known as R0, indicates how many other people a carrier of the disease is expected to infect. A figure below 1 indicates the number of cases is shrinking.

South Korea has been battling a widespread COVID-19 outbreak with expanded testing and tightened social distancing measures, which include limiting business hours for restaurants and shops and banning gatherings of more than four people.

The government also announced stricter entry restrictions for foreign arrivals in light of the new, more contagious variant of the virus that was first reported in Britain.

South Korea has recorded 12 cases of the variant as of Tuesday, all of which have been detected upon entry. Starting Friday, all international travelers to the country will be required to present a negative coronavirus test taken within 72 hours of arrival.

Health officials decided Saturday to extend their current distancing scheme of Level 2.5, the second-highest on its five-tier scale, until Jan. 17 in the Seoul metropolitan area.

The government has been reluctant to impose its highest level of restrictions to limit the economic impact on small businesses.

However, some 300 gym owners have reopened their facilities in defiance of restrictions, news agency Yonhap reported Tuesday. Gyms, which are considered high-risk venues, have been closed since Dec.8.

President Moon Jae-in, who has seen his popularity rating plummet over the course of the latest outbreak, said Tuesday that South Korea could begin vaccinating its population in February.

“We can start vaccinations as early as next month after going through the approval process of the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety,” Moon said at a Cabinet meeting. “The government will do its utmost to make a quick recovery the biggest gift for the new year.”

Moon’s administration has faced criticism for being slow to procure vaccines, but has accelerated its buying in recent weeks.

Moon personally struck a deal with the CEO of U.S. biotechnology firm Moderna, Stéphane Bancel, last week for 40 million doses of the vaccine — enough to inoculate 20 million people. South Korea had previously signed contracts with Pfizer, Janssen and AstraZeneca and will also receive doses through the Covax Facility, a global alliance of governments and manufacturers.

If the Moderna deal is completed, South Korea will have access to more than enough vaccines to inoculate its entire population of 51 million.

Moon said Tuesday that domestically developed COVID-19 treatments also could be available soon. South Korean pharmaceutical company Celltrion announced last week that it applied for conditional approval from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety for CT-P59, a treatment meant to administered early for mild cases of COVID-19.

“South Korea’s top priority this year is to get out of the long tunnel of the coronavirus quickly,” Moon said, adding that the current outbreak has “passed its peak.”

The country’s total caseload rose to 64,979 on Tuesday, according to the KDCA, while the death toll reached 1,007.