SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea has reported its largest daily increase in coronavirus infections on Christmas Day, as the prime minister pleaded for vigilance to arrest a viral surge that has worsened hospitalization and deaths.
The 1,241 new cases confirmed by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Friday brought the country’s caseload to 54,770. Seventeen COVID-19 patients died in the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 773.
More than 870 of the new cases were from the greater capital area, home to half of the country’s 51 million population, where more than 500 infections have been linked to a huge prison in Seoul. Clusters have been popping up from just about everywhere in recent weeks, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, churches, restaurants and army units.
The country has been expanding its mass testing program to slow the rate of transmissions and more than 118,000 tests were conducted on Thursday alone. Officials are also clamping down on private gatherings through Jan. 3, shutting down national parks and ski resorts and setting fines for restaurants if they receive groups of five people or more.
“The last week of the year that begins with Christmas is normally a time where people gather and share their affection with one another, but it’s hard to see that this year in any parts of the world,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during a virus meeting.
Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region:
— Authorities in China's northeastern port city of Dalian are testing millions of residents after seven new cases were reported there in the last 24 hours. The cluster that has emerged in recent days has grown to 12 cases. In five neighborhood divisions, authorities have shut schools, public spaces and are restricting anyone but essential workers from leaving their residential compounds. Beijing is also on high alert after two asymptomatic cases were reported on Thursday, in addition to two confirmed cases last week. The city began mass testing in the neighborhood and workplace of one of the asymptomatic cases, a restaurant employee who worked handling cold chain. Government workers are testing more than 5,000 people, according to the Beijing West District’s announcement Friday. The capital last had an outbreak in June when a cluster was found at a major wholesale food market. As the New Year and Chinese Lunar New Year holidays approach, a spokesman for the city government warned of risks from people visiting family and friends, more gatherings as well as restaurants. “We must carry out well the epidemic prevention work during the holidays and ensure that everyone has a happy and peaceful holiday,” he said.
— Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he wants to make the government's coronavirus measures more effective by seeking legislation that will make business restrictions legally binding, punish violators and include economic compensation. Suga said many people in Tokyo are dining out and partying despite the authorities’ repeated requests to avoid the risks. He said the spread of the virus in the Tokyo region is spilling over to the rest of the country and the government needs a law to make its measures more effective. Japan had a state of emergency in April and May with non-binding requests for people to stay home and business to close. But government taskforce chief Shigeru Omi said people have become complacent about the pandemic and less cooperative to the government requests.
— Japan’s health ministry has confirmed the country's first cases of infection with the new variant of the coronavirus that was identified in Britain. The five people arrived between Dec. 18 and Dec. 21, before Japan stepped up border control on Friday for entrants from Britain. A man in his 60s developed fatigue, but the other four were without symptoms. Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said the five were sent to quarantine straight from the airports. After they tested positive for the virus, further analysis conducted at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases determined they had the British variant that is 70% more transmissible, the ministry said in a statement. Shigeru Omi, head of a government taskforce, called for tighter border control to prevent new variants.
— Sri Lankan prison authorities did not allow relatives to visit inmates on Christmas Day as a precaution while COVID-19 cases are surging in prisons. Usually, all the inmates are allowed to meet their relatives and friends and receive gifts on Christmas. By Friday, the number of confirmed cases in the prisons rose to 3,611, most of them inmates while 121 are prison officers. Most of Sri Lanka's 39,000 cases emerged since October from clusters centered on a garment factory and a fish market in the capital Colombo and its suburbs. The prison cluster emerged last month.