(ATTN: ADDS KCDC's reported death toll in paras 5-6, official's remarks, details in paras 19-25)
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.
One more fatality, an 82-year-old man with lung cancer, was reported earlier in the day, but his death has not been included in an official update.
The KCDC said 59 virus patients are in critical condition. The flu-like virus causes a fever, cough, runny nose or headache for most healthy people, but the risk of severe infection is high for elderly people with underlying health problems.
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.
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, 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 the majority of daily new infections, clusters of infections in Seoul and neighboring areas are feared to rise further.
Aside from Daegu and North Gyeongsang, cases of community spread with unknown origins, mostly cluster and sporadic outbreaks, are gradually on the rise.
Seoul's confirmed cases rose by 19 to 212, with at least 70 cases linked to a call center in Guro Ward and another 14 cases linked to Eunpyeong St. Mary's Hospital in Eunpyeong Ward. Another 13 cases in Seoul came from an apartment building in Seongdong Ward.
Incheon's cases were unchanged at 25, with 14 cases linked to the Guro call center. Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul and Incheon, saw confirmed cases climb by three to 178, with 27 cases tied to Shincheonji and 14 cases tied to the Guro call center.
Virus cases in Busan rose by one to 99, with 34 patients linked to a Christian church in the Dongnae district and another 10 patients linked to Shincheonji. The 34 patients of the Oncheon church in Busan are tied to the church's three-day retreat that ended on Feb. 17, officials said. It is still unclear how they were infected with the virus.
In South Chungcheong Province, which includes the city of Cheonan, 105 of the total 114 patients were tied to a Zumba dance class in Cheonan, the KCDC said.
Clusters of infections account for 80.1 percent of the total confirmed cases as of Thursday.
In the largest cluster of infections in Seoul so far, at least 100 people linked to the call center in Guro district 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.
Officials in North Gyeongsang said Thursday that a 43-year-old woman in the city of Gyeongsan was declared cured during her self-isolation without medical treatment, the first such case in South Korea.
The woman, who tested positive for the virus on Feb. 29 and has been under self-isolation since then, had shown mild symptoms.
KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook said in a briefing that it is "possible" for healthy people to recover from the coronavirus "without medical assistance."
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.
WHO's declaration won't affect South Korea's ongoing containment measures, but the country will further tighten immigration procedures if the number of imported virus cases rises, Kwon said.
Citing precautions by foreign health authorities, Kwon said the virus can be caught from spending about 15 minutes within two meters of infected people.
The possibility of infection after coming into contact with a virus patient on buses or subways is low, Kwon said.
The number of daily new inflections in Daegu recorded a double-digit increase Thursday, marking the slowest pace of infections since late last month.
Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official who is in charge of quarantine work, voiced guarded optimism on the situation in Daegu, saying, "If the situation improves like this, Daegu will surely overcome COVID-19 and return to normality."
However, Yoon expressed concerns about community spread in Seoul and its neighboring areas because the cluster at the Guro call center may be untraceable.
Yoon called for citizens in Seoul and its neighboring areas to take precautionary measures against the virus.
Yoon said the government secured 1,200 hospital beds in Seoul and its neighboring areas.
Amid a spike in virus cases in Europe, South Korea raised its guard against imported virus cases.
Starting Sunday, all people who arrive in South Korea after visiting France, Germany, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands will be required to get fever checks and submit papers on their health conditions, officials said.
They are required to download a smartphone app that will allow them to be put under supervision if they show symptoms.
Also, the requirements will be applied to all people who arrive in South Korea via Dubai, Moscow and other cities after traveling to Europe in the previous two week.
Such requirements have been applied to people who have visited mainland China, Macau, Hong Kong, Iran and Italy.
Although South Korea's new infections have declined, experts warned that the virus may not disappear anytime soon.
"I think there are more people infected with the virus because community spread has been on a rise," said Jung Ki-suck, a professor of pulmonology at Hallym University and a former chief of the KCDC.
Jung expected the infection rate to increase for the time being as the number of confirmed cases rises, but the nation's mortality rate is likely to decline.
Choi Won-suk, a professor of the Infectious Disease Division at Korea University Ansan Hospital, said, "The decline in daily new infections is a good sign, but it does not mean that the epidemic is over."
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.
S. Korea braces for long virus fight as total cases top 10,000
S. Korea prioritizes voter safety for April elections amid coronavirus pandemic
Public chagrin grows over China's virus quarantine measures against Korean visitors
One month into outbreak, coronavirus shakes life in S. Korea
S. Korea still on alert despite slowing coronavirus outbreak