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South Korea scrambles to avoid hospital bed shortage amid new coronavirus surge

People wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus, walk past a banner at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. South Korea has reported its biggest daily jump in COVID-19 cases in 70 days as the government began fining people who fail to wear masks in public. From Friday, officials started to impose fines of up to 100,000 won ($90) for people who fail to properly wear masks in public transport and a wide range of venues, including hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies, nightclubs, karaoke bars, religious and sports facilities and at gatherings of more than 500 people. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

South Korea reported more than 500 new coronavirus cases for the second consecutive day on Friday, a level unseen in nearly nine months, as a third wave of infections spread nationwide, leaving authorities scrambling to provide more hospital beds.

“The situation is extremely serious and acute, as all of the 17 metropolitan cities and provinces and especially all the 25 districts in Seoul are reporting new cases,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a meeting on COVID-19 responses.

The daily tally of 569 came a day after the numbers hit the highest level since March 6, when South Korea was reeling from the first major COVID-19 outbreak outside China.

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Of the latest cases, 525 were domestically transmitted and more than 64% of those were from the Seoul metropolitan area, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

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Authorities said the fresh wave is more difficult to trace and contain than early outbreaks which were concentrated in a specific region or among a certain religious group.

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Alarmed by the countrywide spread and increasing number of cases involving younger patients, Chung warned that daily infections could swell to 1,000 and there could be hospital bed shortages unless the contagion was brought under control.

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The health ministry said there are sufficient beds available for now but it could face shortfalls if the current spike continues for more than two weeks.

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The government reimposed strict social distancing rules on the capital Seoul and surrounding regions this week – restricting dining out, religious services and nightly entertainment. The move came only a month after similar restrictions were eased as a second wave of infections subsided.

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South Korea has reported total infections of 32,887, with 516 deaths.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Stephen Coates & Simon Cameron-Moore)