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(3rd LD) New virus cases stay low, but authorities remain wary of another wave

National 15:55 April 22, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 6-7)

SEOUL, April 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported fewer than 15 new cases of the novel coronavirus for the fourth day in a row Wednesday, but health authorities still remain wary of an increase in new infections amid the eased social distancing campaign.

The country detected 11 new COVID-19 infections Tuesday, bringing the nation's total infections to 10,694, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). Six of the newly added cases were imported, the data showed.

Over the past two weeks, 57 percent of the new COVID-19 cases were from overseas, with another 14.5 percent linked to medical facilities, such as nursing homes, the KCDC said.

Fewer customers than usual are seen in the duty-free area of Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on April 22, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Yonhap)

"Citizens are urged to actively participate in social distancing that will be carried out until May 5," KCDC chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said.

Starting Monday, the country applied a relaxed social distancing advisory to some facilities, including gyms and cram schools, as the number of new COVID-19 infections here showed clear signs of slowing down.

The KCDC said an average of between 2,000 and 3,000 people entered South Korea every day in April, compared with an average of between 7,000 and 8,000 entrants in March.

An average number of new confirmed cases detected at quarantine check points also dramatically shrank from a maximum of 15 every day in March to about five recently.

The average fatality rate of elderly patients, however, still remain relatively high with those aged 80 or older logging a whopping 23.4 percent, the KCDC said.

The country announced a single-digit increase in cases Sunday for the first time in two months at eight, followed by 13 cases the following day and nine on Tuesday.

The plateauing figures mark a drastic drop from the Feb. 29 peak of 909 new cases. The country confirmed its first COVID-19 infection on Jan. 20.

Seoul said it has formed a task force composed of various government agencies to systemically deal with requests from other countries asking for quarantine tips.

"The task force will unify a single channel in sharing our quarantine experience and supporting demands from the international community," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official, told reporters.

Yoon said a total of some 40 countries have since sought help from local health authorities on quarantine measures.

Seoul has also already shipped test kits to more than 60 countries, including some of the most hard-hit countries such as Italy.

The nation's death toll from the coronavirus, which emerged in China late last year, rose by one to 237, the health authorities said.

In total, 8,277 patients in South Korea have recovered from the virus, up from 8,213 a day earlier.

The number of new infections continued to slow in the southeastern city of Daegu, the nation's worst virus-hit region that accounts for around 64 percent of the total cases, adding just one additional case.

A banner along a street in the Hongdae neighborhood of western Seoul urges people to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus on April 21, 2020. The Hongdae area is famous for its youthful atmosphere and is a center of Seoul's urban art and indie music culture. (Yonhap)

Seoul, the most populous city of South Korea, reported two new cases, with the surrounding Gyeonggi Province reporting no COVID-19 infections.

In regards to possible infection cases connected to general elections held last week, the health authorities said there has not yet been a single reported case.

On April 15, South Korea became the first major country to successfully hold nationwide polls since the COVID-19 crisis began sweeping the globe.

The authorities, however, said they will wait one more week to see whether quarantine measures on the voting day have really worked as the incubation period of COVID-19 is about two weeks.

Meanwhile, the authorities said they will soon announce more detailed guidelines regarding the so-called everyday quarantine measures that will soon be adopted.

Authorities had initially planned to shift to "everyday quarantine" from social distancing when daily infections fell below 50 and cases coming from unknown infection routes accounted for less than 5 percent of all cases.

A total of some 20 guidelines that the public has to abide by during everyday life will be announced this week, the authorities said.

Cheerleaders perform during an exhibition game between the Kiwoom Heroes and the SK Wyverns in Incheon, west of Seoul, on April 21, 2020. (Yonhap)

The KCDC also said half of a group of 25 patients who made fully recoveries had traces of the virus despite having protective antibodies against the coronavirus.

Of the 25 patients, 12 tested positive again for COVID-19 despite having created the so-called neutralizing antibody that possess properties that can resist the virus.

"We assume that the virus is not completely destroyed and remains in the body despite having created antibodies depending on the patient. Further studies are under way," Jeong said.

Jeong further said the KCDC has divided and incubated the virus of 39 patients who tested positive again for COVID-19 after full recoveries to analyze their genes, with six of them confirmed to have tested negative.

"They showed signs of positiveness during polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests but tested negative during virus culture tests, indicating that the contagiousness level is nearly none or very low," she said.

khj@yna.co.kr
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