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(4th LD) S. Korea reports fewest daily virus cases in week; cluster-linked spread slows

All News 20:40 May 16, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS background in last 2 paras)

SEOUL, May 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korean health authorities said Saturday they saw no rapid spread of the new coronavirus linked to cluster infections in a nightlife area of Seoul as the country reported the fewest daily cases in a week.

The new 19 more cases, detected Friday, brought the country's total to 11,037, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). Nine were local infections, six of which are 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 single-day cases 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 visits to clubs and bars in the multicultural district of Itaewon reached 162 as of Saturday noon.

People line up to get tests for the new coronavirus at a health center in Gyeonggi Province, outside of Seoul, on May 13, 2020, in this photo provided by the Gyeonggi provincial government. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

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 rapid virus spread tied to the Itaewon outbreak," Sohn Young-rae, an official at the disaster management headquarters, said in a briefing.

KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Joon-wook gave a similar assessment, adding that there has been no "explosive" case of Itaewon-linked infections.

The government has called on those who visited Itaewon between April 24 and May 6 to swiftly receive virus tests to stem further spread of COVID-19.

Anonymous tests are available for those who do not want to reveal their identities. Given more than 56,000 people have taken the tests so far, the government assumed most visitors to Itaewon have received the test.

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.

Despite the slowdown in the virus cases, risks of chain transmissions remain as the government reported the first quaternary infection.

A prison officer working at a detention center in Seoul was infected with the virus after traveling with a person who visited a karaoke room in the densely popoulated capital. The infection was traced to an acquaintance of an Itaewon clubbers who visited the karaoke facility.

The KCDC, meanwhile, said the country reported 10 imported cases, of which six came from the United Arab Emirates. Imported cases were once the biggest threat for South Korea's quarantine operations.

"There have been almost no imported cases, but the latest infections came from a family who arrived here from the Middle East," Kwon said.

South Korea reported two more deaths, bringing the death toll to 262.

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.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which emerged in China late last year, has killed more than 308,000 people globally, and concerns remain that the respiratory illness could pick up again if governments move too quickly to open their economies.

As of Friday, 150 countries and territories imposed entry restrictions or quarantine measures on travelers arriving from South Korea, according to the foreign ministry.

This photo, taken on May 14, 2020, shows medical workers working at an outdoor testing center at Seoul Medical Center. (Yonhap)


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