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South Korea Finds Itself Grappling With 3rd Wave Of Coronavirus Infections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's head now to South Korea, which has had a very different experience of the pandemic from the U.S. With fewer than 600 deaths, South Korea is often held up as an example of how to tamp down coronavirus outbreaks. Now the country is grappling with a third wave of infections, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: South Korea quelled the first two waves with aggressive testing, tracing and quarantining. This time, the epicenter is Seoul and its environs. And tighter restrictions have failed to bring case numbers down. And Health Minister Park Neung-hoo issued a stark warning on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARK NEUNG-HOO: (Speaking in Korean).

KUHN: "The capital area is already a COVID-19 war zone," he said. 'It's an all-out crisis, as we can hardly predict where this third wave will peak."

New cases nationwide have topped 600 for two days now and could hit a thousand in a week or two. To folks in other countries, that might not sound so bad. But Park said Sunday that South Korea's enviable statistics are now at risk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARK: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Our fatality rate is 1.45%," he noted. "That's low compared to other countries, thanks to our medical capabilities and the devotion of our medical workers." But he added, "If we run out of ICU beds and other medical resources, that rate will immediately go up."

South Korea's highly regarded health care system is down to its last 55 ICU beds. The capital region will raise social distancing to its second-highest level tomorrow and ban gatherings of more than 50 people. Critics say the government has been too slow to ramp up restrictions because it fears damage to the economy. Na Seong-woon, vice commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, says the government is quickly running out of options.

NA SEONG-WOON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "If we can't suppress this surge by putting our lives on hold," he said, "it will expand into a major nationwide outbreak. And then we'll be left with only one option - a complete restriction of social activities."

South Korea has prided itself so far on keeping the virus in check without resorting to harsh lockdowns, but it's never taken that option off the table. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.