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(3rd LD) New coronavirus infections fall below 20 for first time in two months

All News 15:54 April 18, 2020

(ATTN: RECASTS lead to highlight gov't's strict social distancing call; ADDS more details on Shincheonji cases, foreign arrivals in paras 9-12, 16)

SEOUL, April 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported fewer than 20 new coronavirus cases on Saturday for the first time in about two months, but the government remained on high alert, stressing continued adherence to strict social distancing guidance.

The number of newly confirmed cases stood at 18, marking the lowest daily increase since Feb. 20, and the country's total infections came to 10,653 as of Saturday, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

The number of South Korea's daily new cases reached a peak of 909 on Feb. 29, but it has since managed to flatten the curve amid stringent quarantine and social distancing measures. Over the past five days, the country saw fewer than 30 new patients per day.

"From Monday, we've seen a total of 141 new patients, which is down 40 percent from the past week. It is about a quarter compared to two weeks earlier," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip told a regular briefing.

The country's death toll came to 232, as two more coronavirus deaths were added Friday, the KCDC said, adding that the number of relapse cases has reached 173, up 10 from a day earlier.

The number of patients released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 7,937, up 108 from a day earlier, KCDC data showed.

Nurses get prepared to take care of coronavirus patients at a hospital in Daegu on April 17, 2020. (Yonhap)

Of the 18 new cases, three cases were reported from the southeastern city of Daegu, once the epicenter of the virus, and the surrounding North Gyeongsang Province added two more cases, according to the KCDC.

The number of people in Daegu who were receiving treatment for the virus fell below 1,000 to stand at 985, as 5,685 people have been released after full recoveries, it noted.

Two of the new patients were enlistees in their 20s who joined an Army boot camp located in the central city of Nonsan earlier this week.

After testing positive, the two were sent to a hospital in Daegu where they reside, the KCDC said, adding that they follow the minor religious sect of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Nearly 70 percent of the total infections in Daegu so far have been related to the group.

"About 90 others who had contact with the two at the boot camp all tested negative," an Army officer said, adding that they will return home and their enlistment schedule will be discussed again later.

It was the second consecutive day that the boot camp saw a coronavirus patient, as a 22-year-old draftee living in South Gyeongsang Province tested positive on Friday. He is also known to be a Shincheonji follower.

Seoul and Gyeonggi Province reported one and four more cases, respectively.

Nine of the fresh infections were from abroad, with four detected at border checkpoints, according to the authorities. The total number of imported cases is now at 992.

In the wake of a surge in the number of imported cases amid the global pandemic, South Korea has enforced mandatory 14-day self-isolation for all travelers coming from overseas since April 1.

Starting on Monday, the government also suspended visa-free entry and visa waiver programs for 90 countries, leading to a drastic fall in the number of foreign arrivals, which is expected to help the country better prevent the possibility of virus inflow from overseas, according to the vice minister.

New conscripts enter a boot camp in Nonsan, 213 kilometers south of Seoul, on Feb. 3, 2020, without a conventional ceremony attended by their family members and friends to mark their entry into the service due to the coronavirus. (Yonhap)

Despite the downward trend, the government has been on high vigilance and called for strict adherence to anti-virus measures and the social distancing campaign, adding that it will announce its decision Sunday on whether to change its quarantine regime to put more focus on supporting the everyday lives of people.

"Our society has been successfully delaying the spread of the COVID-19 virus through social distancing. But that does not mean that the virus disappears completely or we are able to return to the life we had led before the outbreak," he said.

Close monitoring for an additional one or two weeks is needed to analyze possible impacts of electioneering for Wednesday's general elections, among other factors, according to the vice minister.

"Factoring in diverse impacts (of the virus) on the economy and society in a comprehensive manner, the government has been working to draw new guidelines that could apply to everyday life. We will do our best to come up with a reasonable direction by tomorrow," Kim added.

From March 22, the government has intensified its social distancing drive, forcing all major public facilities, including schools and private gyms, to shut down to stop the spread of the virus. The guidance is in effect until Sunday.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun asked the public to keep up social distancing as concerns rise over its possible loosening during upcoming holidays, which could span for about a week starting at the end of this month.

A local market in South Korea's southeastern city of Daegu is crowded with consumers on April 17, 2020, amid a reduced number of newly confirmed COVID-19 patients in the country. (Yonhap)

graceoh@yna.co.kr
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