(ATTN: ADDS details in paras 5-6, KCDC chief's remarks in paras 10-13)
SEOUL, March 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea saw another downward trend in daily new infections of the novel coronavirus Monday, but multiple small-scale cluster infections continued to emerge across the nation, keeping health authorities on edge.
The 74 new cases, which were detected Sunday, brought the nation's total infections to 8,236, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.
Sunday's new cases marked the lowest number of daily infections in more than three weeks, and it was the second straight day that daily new infections fell to a double-digit increase.
So far, 75 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, have died in South Korea from the respiratory virus that emerged in China late last year, the KCDC said.
Three more fatalities, including a 71-year-old man with lung cancer, were reported earlier in the day, but they have 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 and headache for most healthy people, but the risk of severe infection is high for elderly people with underlying health problems.
In South Korea, the virus has preyed on the elderly and already sick people. The KCDC said 70.6 percent of deaths were in their 70s and above. Another 18.7 percent of fatalities were in their 60s. No death from a virus patient younger than 29 has been reported.
To better shield elderly people from the virus, KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong called for elderly people to stay indoors "as soon as possible" and refrain from visiting crowded places.
Also, people should refrain from visiting hospitals and nursing homes to meet their parents or loved ones, Jeong said.
As people around the world have braced for life under the pandemic, Jeong said people in South Korea must prepare for "everyday containment" measures against a "prolonged war" on the virus.
"The growth pace of daily new inflections has been on a decline, but sporadic cases have continued to emerge," Jeong said.
The relentless threat of the virus has already reshaped everyday life in South Korea, extending school breaks, encouraging work from home and shunning gatherings.
"To cope with a prolonged war, we must prepare for new everyday life where following containment measures in life should be taken for granted," Jeong said.
South Korea has released a total of 1,137 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Sunday, up 303 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.
It took about 15 days on average for a person to be released from isolation after testing positive for the virus, the KCDC said.
Sunday's number of cured people marked the biggest one-day increase so far. Last week, the number of daily cured people exceeded the number of daily new infections in South Korea for the first time since Jan. 20, when the virus was first detected on South Korean soil.
About 61 percent of confirmed cases have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, which is the country's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million.
The pace of daily new inflections has shown marked signs of slowing since the second week of this month 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 at a call center in Seoul's Guro district and the country's government complex in the administrative city of Sejong.
Of the 74 new cases, 35 are in Daegu and seven 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 6,066 and 1,164, respectively.
While Daegu and North Gyeongsang still account for the majority of daily new infections, cases of community spread with unknown origins, mostly cluster and sporadic outbreaks, are gradually on the rise.
Seoul's confirmed cases rose by six to 253, with at least 79 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 number of cases was unchanged at 30, with 18 cases linked to the Guro call center. Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul and Incheon, saw confirmed cases climb by 20 to 231, with 32 cases tied to the Guro call center and another 28 tied to Shincheonji.
Virus cases in Busan rose by one to 107, with 34 patients linked to a Christian church in the Dongnae district and another eight 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, 104 of the total 112 patients were tied to a Zumba dance class in Cheonan, the KCDC said.
Clusters of infections account for 80.7 percent of the total confirmed cases as of Monday, meaning that people can contract the virus if they are in crowded places.
A total of 46 people who are tied to a church in Seongnam, south of Seoul, have tested positive for the virus, the KCDC said.
With unknown virus patients who have not developed symptoms appearing to cause significant amounts of infection, the government has called for people to avoid non-essential gatherings in crowded places, such as religious facilities, nursing homes, internet cafes and karaoke rooms.
As the spread of the virus shows little signs of a let-up in Europe and the Middle East, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the government would tighten border checks for all travelers from France, Germany, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands.
The stricter immigration procedures require international travelers to get fever checks and submit papers on their health. They are required to download a smartphone app that will allow them to be put under supervision if they show symptoms.
Such requirements have been applied to people who have visited mainland China, Macau, Hong Kong, Iran and Italy.
As the number of imported virus cases grows, South Korea is preparing to expand its stricter border checks to all people coming from abroad, Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip told reporters.
A total of four imported cases of the novel coronavirus in South Korea have been confirmed, including three patients who traveled to European countries and tested positive for the virus last Saturday, Kim said.
Many experts expected the government to extend school breaks another two weeks to early next month.
Kim said, "It is not the stage where we talk about easing of social distancing."
Kim also hinted that school breaks may be extended, saying, "If schools open, they could become a connecting link to expand local transmissions.
"To help halt the spread of COVID-19 in local communities, social distancing should be put in place over the next two or three weeks," Kim 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.
On Sunday, the government designated Daegu and three other hard-hit areas in North Gyeongsang as "special disaster zones," allowing it to subsidize about half of recovery spending and exempt people there from taxes and utility fees.
The World Health Organization declared last week that the global coronavirus crisis is a pandemic as the virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 7,024 as of Sunday, down 229 from the day before, the KCDC said. The country has tested a total of 274,504 suspected cases, with 251,297 testing negative.
Currently, there is no evidence that the new coronavirus is airborne. WHO said the virus is transmitted through droplets or close contact.
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