(LEAD) PM casts cautious optimism about containment of new coronavirus
(ATTN: ADDS gov't briefing on face masks in last 2 paras)
SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's prime minister raised cautious optimism about the containment of the new coronavirus Monday, saying the pace of growth in infections has slowed for the third straight day.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also vowed efforts for the smooth operation in a new rationing system for face masks amid public anger over the bungled supply scheme.
"It is still too cautious, but I can see some hope that we may approach an inflection point in the near future through cooperation of the central and local governments, the medical sector and citizens," Chung said.
South Korea reported an additional 367 cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, slowing from 483 recorded Saturday and 518 the previous day. Daily infections peaked at 909 on Feb. 29.
Despite the government's quarantine efforts, demand for face masks far surpasses supply, drawing complaints from people who were waiting in long lines for hours to buy masks provided via public channels.
Under the new measure that will take effect Monday, citizens will be able to buy only two protective masks per week from pharmacies, on designated days of the week, depending on the final number of their year of birth.
"I urge citizens to make concessions and consideration to ensure that people who really need face masks can buy them first," Chung said.
The government said it will sternly deal with any action to manipulate the sales of masks, including massive hoarding, to stabilize mask prices.
It will apply a five-day grace period through Saturday to exempt hoarders who turn themselves in from punishment. But the government warned it will implement a "zero-tolerance" policy on any illegal hoarding after the grace period.
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