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Asia Today: S. Korea sees virus jump, urges more vigilance

South Korea reported 103 new virus cases Friday, one of its biggest daily jumps in months, as officials express concerned that infections are getting out of control in cities as people increasingly venture out in public.

Eighty-three of the new cases were from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, where health authorities have struggled to stem transmissions from various sources and groups, including churches, nursing homes, schools and workers. Infections were also reported in other major cities such as Busan, Gwangju and Ulsan.

Eighteen of the new cases were linked to international arrivals, which health officials consider a lesser threat than local transmissions because testing and two-week quarantines are mandatory for all passengers arriving from abroad.

A visitor holding a Korean traditional lantern walks around during the Moonlight Tour at Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. The palace reopened Thursday after having been closed for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP PhotoAhn Young-joon)

South Korea on July 25 had reported 113 new cases of COVID-19, which was its first daily jump over 100 in nearly four months, but that was a predictable spike driven by imported infections found among hundreds of South Korean construction workers airlifted out of Iraq.

Friday’s jump was more concerning as it was driven by local transmissions, which health authorities said could worsen because of the increase in travelers during the summer vacation season.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun during a virus meeting on Friday said that authorities will be forced to consider elevating social distancing measures in the greater capital area -- something policymakers had been reluctant to do over economic concerns -- if transmissions continue to rise. He pleaded for citizen vigilance during a three-day holiday that continues through Monday and criticized plans by some activist groups to hold rallies in Seoul on the weekend despite the city’s ban.

Visitors holding Korean traditional lanterns take pictures during the Moonlight Tour at Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. The palace reopened Thursday after having been closed for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP PhotoAhn Young-joon)

During a briefing Thursday afternoon, Kwon Jun-wook, director of South Korea’s National Institute of Health, pleaded for residents in Seoul and neighboring areas to stay home or wear masks at all times if they have to go out.

“If the infections are worsened by the summer vacation season, as well as increased travel or major rallies during the three-day holiday period, we could slip into a situation that would be really hard to control,” he said.

South Korea has so far weathered its COVID-19 epidemic without major economic lockdowns, although officials shut schools until May and temporarily closed entertainment venues in some major cities when infections rose.

Visitors holding Korean traditional lanterns walk around during the Moonlight Tour at Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. The palace reopened Thursday after having been closed for two months due the coronavirus pandemic. (AP PhotoAhn Young-joon)

Health authorities have instead relied on aggressive testing and technological tools, including extensive use of mobile-phone location data and credit-card records to trace contacts and smartphone tracking apps to monitor tens of thousands quarantined at home.

Visitors at nightclubs, karaoke bars wedding halls, baseball stadiums and other facilities deemed as “high-risk” are required to register themselves with smartphone QR codes so they could be easily located when needed.

Still, health authorities have recently said they are finding it increasingly difficult to trace contacts and predict infection routes as people increase their social and economic activities.

An employee wearing a face mask waits for arrival of visitors during the Moonlight Tour at Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. The palace reopened Thursday after having been closed for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP PhotoAhn Young-joon)

The figures released by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday brought the national caseload to 14,873 cases, including 305 deaths.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— North Korean leader Kim Jong Un lifted a lockdown at a major city near the border with South Korea where thousands had been quarantined for weeks over coronavirus worries. But Kim also insisted the North will keep its borders shut and reject any outside help as it carries out an aggressive anti-virus campaign. State media also reported Kim said at Thursday's ruling party meeting that the virus situation in Kaesong was stable and expressed gratitude to residents for cooperating with the lockdown. The lockdown was ordered in late July after North Korea claimed of finding a person with COVID-19 symptoms. It later said the person’s test results were inconclusive.

Visitors holding Korean traditional lanterns walk around during the Moonlight Tour at Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. The palace reopened Thursday after having been closed for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP PhotoAhn Young-joon)

— China reported eight new cases in the northwestern region of Xinjiang where the country’s latest major outbreak has been largely contained. Another 22 new cases reported Friday by the National Health Commission were Chinese travelers returning home. Hong Kong reported another 69 cases and three deaths over the past 24 hours. The semi-autonomous Chinese city has required masks be worn in all public settings, restricted indoor dining and enacted other social distancing measures to bring down transmissions.

A man carries a child poses in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. New local cases in China fell into the single digits, while Hong Kong saw another rise in hospitalizations and deaths. (AP PhotoAndy Wong)