(ATTN: ADDS more remarks in paras 28-30)
SEOUL, May 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea added 13 new cases of the new coronavirus on Sunday with nightclub-linked infections showing signs of a slowdown over the weekend, health authorities said Sunday.
The new cases, detected Saturday, brought the country's total to 11,050, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). Seven cases came from overseas and five are linked to a cluster in Itaewon.
It marked the fewest daily cases since Itaewon, a multicultural nightlife district in Seoul, emerged as a hotbed for coronavirus cluster infections. The country added 19 new cases a day earlier.
The new cluster infections have put South Korea at the critical juncture of whether domestic spread of the virus will continue or not.
After a patient infected with the COVID-19 virus visited multiple clubs in Itaewon in early May, the country experienced a resurgence in the number of new patients, with the daily increase reaching 35 on Monday, the highest of this month.
Around 5,500 people were estimated to have visited affected clubs in Itaewon between April 24 and May 6. With more than a thousand people still being out of contact, health authorities are remaining vigilant over another possible boom in local infections.
The number of cases linked to the cluster infections came to 168 as of noon, according to health authorities. Among the newly reported cases were two quaternary infections.
There has been a growing number of cases reported from karaoke rooms as well, which are also traced to the Itaewon clubbers.
"Coin-operated karaoke rooms tend to be very small and tight without sufficient ventilation. Many visitors also don't wear masks," KCDC Chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said during a daily briefing.
"Even those who already tested negative should remain under self-quarantine as the incubation period of the disease is roughly 14 days," Jeong said.
The COVID-19 pandemic will still continue, going through ups and downs, and "we should learn lessons from the club-linked cases," Jeong added.
South Korea also plans to carry out pooled testing on military recruits, in which samples from five people will be tested simultaneously, enabling the country to test 6,300 soldiers a week.
South Korea reported no new deaths, keeping the death toll at 262.
The fatality rate reached 2.37 percent, with most of the deaths being reported from those aged 70 and older. No deaths were reported from people aged 29 or younger, although they account for nearly 35 of the total infections.
The total caseload tied to visits to clubs and bars in Itaewon reached 162 as of Saturday noon.
The government cautiously expected that, given the current pace of newly reported cases linked to Itaewon, the current situation will likely be brought under control, though it is still too early to let its guard down.
"Should the current trend continue, our analysis is that the fallout from the cluster infections in Itaewon could be brought within the range of control of our preventive network," Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told reporters.
As of 6 p.m. on Saturday, around 61,000 people have been tested in connection with the Itaewon case, he said, adding that health authorities' tracking efforts appear to be catching up with the spread of the virus.
The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 9,888, up 37 from the previous day.
The figures indicate nearly 90 percent of the patients fully recovered from the disease.
The nation, with a population of 50 million, has carried out 747,653 tests since Jan. 3, including 7,000 from a day earlier. South Korea reported its first COVID-19 case, from a Chinese person, on Jan. 20.
Imported cases, which used to be the biggest threat for South Korea's quarantine operations before the clubbers' group infections came up to the surface, rose by seven to reach 1,167.
The number of relapse cases came to 466 as of Sunday.
Despite the infections from Itaewon, South Korea has made no major changes to the relaxed social distancing scheme.
Amid growing concerns over an irrevocable impact on the economy, South Korea gave the go-ahead to the normalization of public facilities and other business establishments under the condition that they follow basic sanitation measures. Clubs and karaoke rooms are excluded in some areas.
High school seniors will return to classrooms starting Wednesday, a week later than earlier scheduled, and students of other grades will gradually resume their school years by June 8.
Should infections be reported at a school, all students there will be ordered to return home. Epidemiologic surveys will be immediately conducted on students and teachers, with online classes to be provided until the results come out, Vice Education Minster Park Baeg-beom told reporters.
"In consultation with KCDC officials and other experts, we decided to reopen schools while thoroughly carrying out preventive efforts rather than indefinitely postponing it at a time when it remains uncertain when COVID-19 will be stamped out and there is a possibility of a second pandemic from autumn," he said.
The official said the club-linked infections have not had much impact on schools.
According to government data, the number of students, teachers and school staff members who visited the Itaewon district in early May stood at 838. Of the total, 93.8 percent have tested negative for the coronavirus, with tests still being conducted on 52 people.
Precautionary measures will be taken to minimize the risk of infections at schools, mostly aimed at reducing exposure among students on their way to school or in class. One-way passage in school hallways is one of the ways under consideration, the vice education minister added.
Health authorities here earlier said there has been no "explosive" spread of club-linked infections, although they remain vigilant over risks of chain transmissions.
Should the country observe no further boom in the number of cases over the weekend, South Korea could safely say that it has brought the Itaewon-linked cases under the control of quarantine authorities, they added.
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