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(5th LD) New virus cases below 100 for 4th day, but clusters continue to emerge

All Headlines 15:31 March 18, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS KCDC chief's remarks, details in paras 4-5, 20-22)

SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korea recorded daily new infections of the new coronavirus in double digits for the fourth straight day Wednesday, as health authorities stay alert for cluster infections across the nation. Authorities also called for people to delay or cancel nonessential overseas travel to help keep the virus outbreak under control.

The 93 new cases, which were detected Tuesday and followed the 84 new cases detected on Monday and 74 on Sunday, brought the nation's total infections to 8,413, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

So far, 84 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.

Seven more fatalities, including a 77-year-old person with underlying illnesses, were reported earlier in the day, but they have not been included in an official update.

The KCDC said 58 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 71.42 percent of deaths were of people in their 70s and above as of Tuesday. Another 19.5 percent of fatalities were of those in their 60s. No one younger than 29 has been reported to have died.

South Korea's mortality rate stood at one percent as of Tuesday, according to the KCDC. For those aged 80 and above, the fatality rate was 10.84 percent. For those aged between 70 and 79, the rate was 5.35 percent. For those aged between 60 and 69, it was 1.51 percent.

About 60 percent of confirmed cases have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, which has a population of 2.5 million and is the country's fourth-largest city.

Medical staff at Dongsan Hospital in virus-hit Daegu head for an intensive care unit dedicated to treating coronavirus patients on March 17, 2020. (Yonhap)

The pace of daily new infections has slowed markedly since the second week of this month as health authorities completed extensive testing of 210,000 Shincheonji followers at the center of the rapid spread, but the authorities are still on high alert over new clusters of infections, including at a call center in Seoul's Guro district and Protestant churches in Gyeonggi Province.

Of the 93 new cases, 46 are in Daegu and nine 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 6,144 and 1,178, respectively.

Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul and Incheon, saw their new daily infections rise by 21 to 579 on Tuesday.

While Daegu and North Gyeongsang saw signs of stabilization in the number of new virus infections, cases of community spread with unknown origins, mostly cluster and sporadic outbreaks, are on a gradual rise.

Seoul's confirmed cases rose by five to 270, with at least 82 cases linked to the call center in Guro Ward and another 19 cases linked to a Protestant church and an internet cafe in Dongdaemun Ward.

Incheon's cases climbed by one to 32, with 19 cases linked to the Guro call center. Gyeonggi Province saw confirmed cases climb by 15 to 277, with 50 cases linked to a church in Seongnam and another 34 cases tied to the Guro call center.

The number of virus cases in Busan was unchanged at 107, with 32 patients linked to a church in the Dongnae district and another eight patients linked to Shincheonji. The 32 patients of the Oncheon church in Busan are connected 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, 103 of the total 118 patients were linked to a Zumba dance class in the provincial city of Cheonan, the KCDC said.

A hygiene official disinfects a day care center in Seoul on March 18, 2020, as part of preventive measures against the spread of the new coronavirus. (Yonhap)

Clusters of infections account for 80.2 percent of the total confirmed cases as of Wednesday, meaning that people can contract the virus if they are in a close environment.

Making it harder for health authorities to contain the spread of the virus, the number of imported virus cases rose by five to 11 on Tuesday.

KCDC Director-General Jeong Eun-kyeong urged people to delay or cancel nonessential overseas travel. Jeong also called for all overseas returnees to stay home for two weeks and swiftly report to authorities if they show symptoms.

The 11 imported virus cases all came from Korean nationals who recently traveled overseas, including to European nations, Egypt, Thailand and the United States. For those who traveled to European nations, it is difficult to trace where they contracted the virus, Jeong said.

"As the world braces for the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of the inflow (of the virus from overseas) is becoming higher," Jeong said.

Jeong also reminded people that personal hygiene and social distancing practices are effective measures to prevent infections.

With unknown virus sufferers who have not developed symptoms apparently causing significant numbers of infections, the government has called for people to avoid nonessential gatherings in crowded places, such as religious facilities, nursing homes, internet cafes and karaoke rooms.

A new cluster of infections emerged in Daegu, with at least 74 people at a nursing home having tested positive for the virus so far, local officials said.

Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official who is in charge of containment measures, told reporters that the government advised all social welfare facilities to extend breaks by another two weeks to April 6.

Lee Young-sang, head of Bundang Jaesaeng General Hospital, south of Seoul, tested positive for the virus on Tuesday. The hospital is the site of one of the clusters in Seoul and neighboring areas.

Lee attended a meeting with senior health ministry officials on Friday, Yoon said.

Health ministry officials who attended the meeting, including Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip, have been in self-isolation at their homes, Yoon said.

Starting Thursday, all people who are arriving from overseas will be subject to stricter border checks to halt the spread of imported virus cases.

Since March 11, passengers heading to the United States from South Korea have been required to get fever checks and other health examinations. If a passenger shows symptoms, authorities could bar the passenger from getting a boarding pass.

Yoon said the government is considering applying to the containment measure to all outbound travelers.

Shareholders of Samsung Electronics Co., wearing masks amid the spread of the new coronavirus, head to their annual shareholders meeting in Suwon, just south of Seoul, on March 18, 2020. (Yonhap)

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 the 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.

South Korea had released a total of 1,540 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Tuesday, up 139 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.

The number of daily cured people exceeded the number of daily new infections in South Korea last week for the first time since Jan. 20, when the virus was first detected on South Korean soil.

The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 16,346 as of Tuesday, down 945 from the day before, the KCDC said. The country has tested a total of 295,647 suspected cases, with 270,888 testing negative.


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