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Asia Today: Virus surge makes S. Korean lockdown more likely

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

A woman wearing a mask passes screens showing social behavior rules to help curb the spread of the coronavirus at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. South Korea has added nearly 4,000 infections to its caseload while reporting triple-digit daily jumps in each of the past 14 days, prompting health experts to warn about hospitals possibly running out of capacity. The sign reads: "Do not visit crowded places." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL – South Korea reported 441 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, its highest single-day total in months, making lockdown-like restrictions look inevitable as transmissions slip out of control.

The country has reported triple-digit daily jumps on each of the past 14 days, prompting health experts to warn that hospitals could run out of capacity.

Thursday's increase was the biggest since 483 cases were reported on March 7. South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 315 of the new cases were from the Seoul area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people, where health workers have struggled to track infections linked to churches, restaurants, schools and workers.

The National Assembly in Seoul was shut down and more than a dozen ruling party lawmakers were forced to isolate Thursday following a positive test of a journalist who covered a ruling party leaders' meeting.

Infections were also reported in major cities and provincial towns around the country.

Health officials have described the outbreak over the past two weeks as the country’s biggest crisis since the emergence of COVID-19.

The country has stepped up social distancing restrictions nationwide, banning large gatherings, shutting churches and nightspots, removing spectators from professional sports and shifting most schools back to remote learning.

There are views that such measures aren’t enough. Heath officials have lamented that people are continuing to venture out in public.

If the viral spread doesn’t slow, health authorities have said they may raise social distancing measures to the highest “Level 3,” which could include banning gatherings of more than 10 people and advising private companies to have employees work from home.

Such steps, designed to allow only essential economic and social activities, may significantly hurt an already weak economy.

South Korea’s central bank on Thursday lowered its outlook for the economy this year, predicting it will shrink by 1.3%. It last contracted in 1998 in the midst of a crippling foreign currency crisis.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— India recorded its highest single-day increase with 75,760 new coronavirus cases as it ramps up testing, raising the country’s total virus tally to over 3.3 million. The Health Ministry on Thursday also reported 1,023 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking total fatalities up to 60,472. India has been recording more than 60,000 new infections per day for the last two weeks. With more than 800,000 average tests every day, India has scaled up testing per million to more than 27,000, the ministry said.

— North Korea told the World Health Organization it has tested 2,767 people for the coronavirus as of Aug. 20 and all have tested negative. In an email to The Associated Press, Edwin Salvador, WHO’s representative to North Korea, said the country is monitoring 1,004 citizens under quarantine. Salvador said North Korea told WHO it has released 29,961 people from quarantine, including 382 foreigners. It said it has not confirmed any cases of COVID-19, but outsiders doubt its virus-free claim. North Korea announced a lockdown of a border city in July after reporting a person had COVID-19 symptoms. Salvador said WHO has yet to receive details about the suspected case. He said North Korea's borders remain closed, except for COVID-19-related shipments through the Sinuiju-Dandong crossing on its border with China.

— An Indian health official said four members of a small tribe in the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands have tested positive for the coronavirus. Dr. Avijit Ray said the four are among the 37 members of the Great Andamanese tribe who live on Strait Island. Health workers went to the island last week to test the tribe members, he said. Ray said the four apparently caught the virus during a recent visit to Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal. They are being treated and “are recovering well,” he said. The territory, with a population of about 400,000, has reported 2.944 cases, including 41 deaths, mostly among non-tribal groups. Other vulnerable tribes on the islands include the Sentinelese, Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Shompen and Onge. Roy said health workers are trying to protect the tribes from the virus.

— Public and private schools throughout Myanmar were temporarily closed by the government on Thursday after the country registered a surge in coronavirus cases. State broadcaster MRTV cited an education official as saying students will continue their studies through home learning. No date was set for reopening. The closings were ordered after 70 coronavirus cases were reported on Wednesday, the country’s highest single-day total. As of Thursday, Myanmar has reported 586 cases, including six deaths. High schools had generally reopened in late July, a month later than usual after the hot season break, while most lower schools reopened a few weeks later. The new cases have mostly been in the western state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh and hosts several major displacement camps due to years of civil conflict. The government on Wednesday instituted a “stay-at-home” program for the entire state that bans unnecessary and unauthorized travel.

— Australia’s coronavirus hot spot, Victoria state, recorded its third deadliest day of the pandemic as well as the lowest tally of new infections in more than eight weeks. The 23 deaths followed 24 on Wednesday. Victoria’s Health Department said 22 of the most recent deaths were related to aged care. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 8% of Australia's aged care homes had residents or staff infected with the virus. He said four Melbourne aged care homes had been “acutely affected.” The 113 new cases reported on Thursday was the lowest number since July 5.

— China reported no new local transmissions for an 11th straight day as it wraps up containment efforts for its most recent major outbreaks. Eight new imported cases were reported, while 324 people remained in treatment. China has reported 4,634 deaths from COVID-19 among 85,004 cases. The far northwestern city of Urumqi that saw more than 300 cases in China’s latest major outbreak has relaxed quarantine restrictions on communities that were closed off to contain the spread.