SEOUL, April 3 (Yonhap) -- Over two months after its first coronavirus infection, South Korea's confirmed COVID-19 cases have hit the bleak milestone of 10,000 and the pace of the outbreak has slowed.
But a steady rise in cluster infections and imported cases may herald a long fight against the virus, prompting health authorities to maintain a high level of vigilance.
The country reported its first COVID-19 case on Jan. 20 and reported 86 new cases Friday, bringing the total number of people infected here to 10,062, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
After reporting only a few cases for nearly a month, the country started to see a double-digit increase in virus infections on Feb. 19, with cases rising by more than 50 to surpass the 100 mark the following day and surging tenfold to 1,000 in just six days.
The number soared to 5,000 on March 3, and the infection curve has begun to flatten since the middle of last month. The total cases surpassed 9,000 on March 24.
The sharp increase in virus patients in late February and early March came as the country conducted massive testing of followers of a religious sect, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
The sect's branch in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and the neighboring North Gyeongsang Province have emerged as hotbeds of the virus outbreak here.
Infections traced to Shincheonji in Daegu stood at 4,478 as of Friday, accounting for 66.4 percent of the city's total of 6,734 cases.
Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province still make up around 80 percent of all confirmed cases in the country, while Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province account for more than 10 percent.
But recently, new cases in Seoul, the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and the western port city of Incheon have outpaced those in Daegu, as cluster infections have been reported, stoking concerns that the spread of COVID-19 could accelerate in the heavily populated metropolitan region, home to about half South Korea's total population.
Cluster infections have centered on churches, hospitals and workplaces, such as a call center in Guro Ward in southwestern Seoul.
"Over 65 percent of all cases in the country have been linked to various clusters, with the rest being sporadic cases and those under investigation," KCDC chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said on Thursday.
Jeong and other officials have said they are keeping close tabs on the rise in cluster transmissions and latest developments in and around Seoul.
To better detect imported virus cases and stem community spread, the country implemented a nationwide social distancing campaign about two weeks ago, urging citizens to avoid gatherings and visiting indoor sports, cultural and religious facilities.
Samsung Electronics Co. and other large firms have been promoting working from home as part of the social distancing drive.
On Tuesday, the country pushed back the new school year to April 9, with the introduction of online classes. The opening of kindergartens and child care centers has been delayed indefinitely.
The health authorities also started placing all new arrivals from abroad in self-quarantine for two weeks Wednesday.
People going into quarantine must install a special app on their phones that allows authorities to monitor them in real time and ensure they are following the rules and not making unnecessary contact with others.
The tighter quarantine on new arrivals came as the number of COVID-19 infections linked to people coming from abroad reached 647, or 6.4 percent of all infections detected in the country so far.
Before implementing such measures, South Korea had banned foreigners from entering the country if they came from some Chinese cities. It has been enforcing a two-week quarantine and virus tests for all long-term arrivals from Europe, regardless of symptoms. Entrants from the United States have also been required to self-isolate for two weeks.
As a result of tightened quarantine measures, there has been a sharp decrease in the number of people arriving in the country, with the daily tally falling below 6,000 Thursday, down from the normal 200,000 before the pandemic paralyzed travel.
The number of people entering the country is expected to further drop under the new quarantine scheme, despite some exceptions being permitted for diplomats, foreign government officials and humanitarian workers.
Health authorities stressed that South Korean citizens who fail to follow the quarantine rules could face jail time of up to one year or a fine of up to 10 million won (US$8,140). Foreigners could be subject to immediate deportation and not be permitted to enter the country in the future.
"Strict adherence to quarantine guidelines, along with active support for social distancing by the general public, is of the utmost importance at this juncture and is actually more effective than trying to treat the sick," Yoon Tae-ho, a health ministry official in charge of overseeing quarantine measures, told reporters earlier in the day. He made clear once again that the authorities will deal harshly with rule breakers.
The KCDC said that while broad testing and quarantining of infected people has helped to reduce the overall number of new cases, the death toll from the virus has been on a steady rise, with seniors most at risk of falling prey to COVID-19.
As of Friday, the fatality rate for virus patients stood at 1.73 percent, up from around 0.8 percent in the second week of March. The mortality rate for people aged over 80, however, reached above 18.8 percent, with the figure for people in their 70s standing at 7.3 percent.
On a positive note, the country reported that 6,021 people had made full recoveries, compared with the 3,867 people in isolation and undergoing treatment.
The number of people who have recovered from COVID-19 exceeded that of people getting sick from the virus around the middle of last month.
As of Friday, the country had tested 443,273 people for the coronavirus, with 18,908 undergoing inspection, according to the KCDC.
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