The government urged citizens to refrain from meetings between individuals as the nation recorded the highest infection rate of 44.7 percent last week caused by personal contacts.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KCDA) confirmed 512 new patients on Tuesday, including 477 local infections, increasing the cumulative caseload to 119,898 as of midnight Monday. Imported infections decreased to 35 from 39 recorded in the previous day.
The daily tally stayed at the 500s-range for the second day thanks mainly to the “weekend effect,” referring to fewer tests on Saturdays and Sundays.
Three more people died of the Covid-19, pushing the death toll to 1,820 with a fatality rate of 1.52 percent. The number of fully recovered people in the country rose to 109,695, with 845 newly recovered patients, according to the KDCA. The country has tested 8,721,609 people since Jan. 3 last year.
"Although the number of confirmed cases slightly fell due to the decrease in the number of tests during the weekend, concerns about infection have not diminished at all," Health and Welfare Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said. Kwon pointed out that the positive test rate for the last week was 1.88 percent, maintaining its upward trend for the six consecutive weeks.
"While the rate of cluster infections has dropped by about 15 percent from a month ago, that of infections through individual contacts with confirmed patients, such as family members and acquaintances, soared to 44.7 percent, the highest level this year," Kwon said. "It is more important than ever to refrain from meetings between individuals and strictly follow basic quarantine rules."
To tighten curbs on the spread of the virus, the government has designated this week as a special quarantine period, banning office dinners by government employees and expanding working from home and working half time or part of business hours in the public sector.
The greater Seoul area, home to half of the nation's 52-million population, will remain under the Level 2 distancing scheme, the third-highest in the five-phase system, until May 2. The rest of the country is under Level 1.5, except for some municipalities that have adopted Level 2 measures. Private gatherings of five or more people are also banned nationwide.
However, if the current infection trend continues to increase, the government stressed that they might consider stricter rules on multi-use facilities and business operations and an additional ban on gatherings.
The government is also planning to accelerate the vaccination schedule as much as possible as it has secured an additional amount of Covid-19 vaccine.
As of Monday, about 2.43 million people had completed vaccination, which accounts for about 80.3 percent of the government's plans to inoculate three million by the end of April.
The government plans to complete vaccinations for 170,000 essential social workers, such as policemen and firefighters, by the first week of next month and start vaccinations for the 4.94 million elderly aged 65 to 74.
"We have secured a sufficient amount of vaccines required to immunize 70 percent of the population by September and achieve herd immunity by November. The government is preparing detailed vaccination plans for the general public, which will start next week, Kwon said.
While the government is striving to assure citizens that the country has already secured deals for enough doses and that the overall inoculation program is on track, doubts have been growing over the government's scheme to vaccinate 12 million people first half of this year.
On Monday, President Moon Jae-in reassured the public, saying that the government is confident in achieving its inoculation goals.
Moon also asked the people to stop politicizing the vaccine issue.
"If the government's plan does not go according to the plan, there will be time to raise issues then, so please do not over-politicize the vaccine issue at this stage to inspire vague anxiety over the supply and demand of the vaccines," Moon said. "The government will prepare for any possible uncertainties in the supply and demand of vaccines and increase the speed of vaccination."
Moon met with NovaVax CEO Stanley Erck at Cheong Wa Dae later in the day.
During the meeting, Moon discussed expanding production cooperation between Korea and NovaVax, applying for a prompt license, and introducing vaccines in Korea.
Korea signed a contract with NovaVax to supply 20 million vaccines and is the first Covid-19 vaccine produced in Korea through technology transfer. SK Bioscience plans to produce the entire supply at its domestic plant.