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(LEAD) S. Korea's virus cases on slide, authorities on guard for cluster infections

All News 10:49 March 12, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS details throughout; UPDATES first three paras, headline)

SEOUL, March 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea recorded another drop in its daily new infections Thursday as massive testing of a religious sect's followers in the southeastern city of Daegu, the epicenter of the new coronavirus here, is nearing an end, but concerns are lingering over cluster infections in Seoul and its neighboring areas.

The 114 new cases of the coronavirus, which were detected Wednesday and marked the lowest number of daily infections in more than two weeks, brought the nation's total infections to 7,869.

Wednesday's additional cases, which followed the 242 new cases detected Tuesday, were also far below the daily increases of 500 or more last week.

So far, 66 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, have died in South Korea from the respiratory virus that emerged in China late last year, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

About 61 percent of confirmed cases have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, which, with a population of 2.5 million, is the country's fourth-largest city.

This graph, provided by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) on March 12, 2020, shows daily new confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and total infections in South Korea. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The pace of daily new inflections had shown signs of slowing in recent days as health authorities completed extensive testing of 210,000 Shincheonji followers who are at the center of the rapid spread, but authorities are still on high alert over new clusters of infections, including a call center in Seoul's Guro district.

Of the 114 new cases, which were detected on Wednesday, 73 are in Daegu and eight are in North Gyeongsang, the KCDC said. The total number of confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the two epicenters of the virus outbreak here, stood at 5,867 and 1,143, respectively.

While Daegu and North Gyeongsang still account for a majority of daily new infections, clusters of infections in Seoul and neighboring areas are feared to worsen.

Seoul's virus caseload rose by 19 to 212 and Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul, saw its confirmed cases climb by three to 178. Incheon, west of Seoul, reported no new cases, but the city's total infections stood at 25.

New cases were detected in other major provinces and cities, including South Chungcheong, Daejeon and Sejong.

In the largest cluster of infections in Seoul so far, at least 90 people linked to a call center in southern Seoul had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday, highlighting concerns about the virus' spread in confined spaces and within the metropolitan area.

Employees and trainees at the call center, as well as those who have come into contact with them, have been asked to get tested, local officials said.

Since raising the virus alert level to "red," the highest level, on Feb. 23, health authorities have focused on halting the spread of the virus in Daegu and North Gyeongsang.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Wednesday that the global coronavirus crisis is now a pandemic, as the global death toll neared 4,300 and worldwide infections approached 118,000.

Medical staffers walk to a staff lounge after finishing a shift at Dongsan Hospital in coronavirus-hit Daegu, 302 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on March 11, 2020. (Yonhap)

South Korea had released a total of 333 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Wednesday, up 45 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.

The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 17,727 as of Wednesday, down 813 from the day before, it said. The country has tested a total of 227,129 suspected cases, with 209,402 testing negative.

Currently, there is no evidence that the new coronavirus is airborne. WHO said the virus is transmitted through droplets or close contact.

kdh@yna.co.kr
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