(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead: UPDATES with more info throughout; CHANGES photos)
SEOUL, May 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported the fewest daily cases of the new coronavirus in a week Saturday as cluster infections linked to Seoul's nightlife district of Itaewon slowed down, according to health authorities.
The new 19 COVID-19 cases detected Friday raised the country's total to 11,037, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). Nine were local infections tied to the Itaewon outbreak.
It is the first time that the number of daily new infections fell below 20 since May 9 when the corresponding figure hit 18.
Itaewon has emerged as a hotbed for coronavirus cluster infections here since the related first case was reported last week. The total caseload tied to the Itaewon cluster reached 161 as of Friday.
A letup in local infections could offer respite to health authorities who were put on high alert for rapid chain infections in communities.
"Despite massive testing, there seems to be no trend of the rapid virus spread tied to the Itaewon outbreak," Sohn Young-rae, an official at the disaster management headquarters, said in a briefing.
The government has called on those who visited Itaewon between April 24 and May 6 to swiftly receive coronavirus tests.
With regard to the Itaewon outbreak, anonymous tests are available for those who do not want to reveal their identities. About 46,000 people have received virus tests so far.
Health authorities viewed this weekend as a critical juncture for the country's battle against the coronavirus, calling for people's cooperation in quarantine efforts.
"If we pass this weekend well, we expect the Itaewon-linked spread to come under the control of quarantine authorities," Sohn noted.
South Korea reported two more deaths, bringing the death toll to 262, according to the KCDC.
The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 9,851, up 30 from the previous day.
South Korea has flattened the infection curve with its massive testing and contact tracing since its first case on Jan. 20. The number of daily new infections, which once peaked at 909, fell to a single digit figure in the first week of May.
But the government is struggling to stem a potential second wave of infections as the country saw a sharp rise in Itaewon-linked cases reported following the latest holidays.
Following 45 days of stricter social distancing, South Korea switched an "everyday life quarantine" scheme on May 6 to enable citizens to carry out social and economic activities under quarantine rules.
The country planned to gradually reopen schools starting Wednesday, but decided to postpone the plan by a week amid a spike in virus cases traced to Itaewon.
New Defense Minister Lee takes office, warns of 'stern' response to possible N.K. provocations
(LEAD) Yoon taps ex-deputy NSA for spy chief
Gov't to significantly increase international flights to meet travel demand
(2nd LD) BTS wins three Billboard Music Awards, marking 6th year to win an award
(Yonhap Interview) Kiwoom Heroes' ace Eric Jokisch wants to make young sons proud
S. Korea to send condolence delegation to UAE over death of president
Yoon expresses hope for reopening of Seoul-Tokyo air route to bolster exchanges
(LEAD) N. Korea confirms first case of omicron variant of COVID-19: state media
Seoul's daily subway ridership hits pandemic-era high on eased restrictions
(5th LD) N.K. leader, wearing mask, chairs meeting on omicron outbreak
S. Korean volunteer fighter in Ukraine doesn't regret his action despite facing imprisonment at home
(LEAD) S. Korea looks into cryptocurrency market following TerraUSD, Luna crash
S. Korea's Black Eagles aerobatic team to perform in British air shows in July
(LEAD) Yoon names ex-Vice FM Cho as ambassador to U.S.
(LEAD) N. Korea reports 6 additional deaths amid COVID-19; military mobilized for drug supply