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(3rd LD) New virus cases dip to below 50, cluster infections traced to churches in focus

All News 15:59 June 29, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 10, 24)

SEOUL, June 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new virus cases fell back to below 50 on Monday, but a continued rise in cluster infections, mostly tied to churches, put to the test the country's capability to fight the virus.

The country added 42 cases, including 30 local infections, raising the total caseload to 12,757, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

The tally marked a sharp fall from 62 new cases of COVID-19 reported Sunday and 51 additional cases identified Saturday, which might be due to less testing over the weekend.

Citizens line up to receive new coronavirus tests at a screening center at a hospital in Seoul's southwestern ward of Gwangak on June 29, 2020, as at least 28 virus cases tied to a major church in the district were reported. (Yonhap)

The country's health authorities remain concerned about sustained rises in local infections and imported cases, which may trigger another wave of virus outbreak in the summer.

The total global virus caseload topped 10 million Sunday, less than seven months since the first reported outbreak in China late last year, as the virus is spreading at an alarming pace.

Of the locally transmitted cases, 21 cases were reported in densely populated Seoul and the surrounding area. Two cases were newly reported in the central city of Daejeon and three in Gwangju, 329 kilometers south of Seoul, the KCDC said.

"Over the past two weeks, the portions of both cluster infections and imported cases remained high. That of cases whose infection transmissions are unknown has also risen to 11.8 percent," KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said in a briefing.

Cluster infections tied to churches in the greater Seoul area have emerged as the bane of the country's quarantine efforts.

Cases traced to a major church in Seoul's southwestern ward of Gwanak reached 28 as of noon, up one case from the previous day. Those tied to a church in Anyang, south of Seoul, rose by four to 22.

At least 12 cases linked to a Buddhist temple in Gwangju were reported. Health authorities are conducting virus tests on 76 people for potential transmission.

Those linked to a door-to-door retailer in southern Seoul reached 210, up three over the past 24 hours.

"Infections tied to small gatherings have increased, making it hard to contain virus transmission. It is worrisome that the virus is spreading in regions beyond the Seoul metropolitan area," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health official, said in a briefing.

Yoon said the government is considering the adoption of measures to stem the virus spread at churches and other religious facilities.

The government remains cautious about designating religious facilities as "high-risk" places as critics regard the move as infringing on religious freedom.

This photo, taken June 29, 2020, shows the closed front gate of an elementary school in Seoul's central ward of Yongsan as the school has suspended students' off-line classes after virus cases were reported at a day care center run by the defense ministry in the vicinity of the school. (Yonhap)

South Korea has been dogged by rises in sporadic cluster infections in the greater Seoul area since it relaxed strict social distancing on May 6 on the back of the flattened virus curve.

Health officials warned that they may consider expanding tougher infection preventive measures -- currently in place only in the Seoul metropolitan area -- across the country if virus situations get worse.

The country is currently in the Level 1 social distancing scheme, under which the number of daily virus infections, mostly below 50, is manageable under the current medical system.

Level 2 will be applied when daily infections exceed 50 for the 14th straight day, but remain below 100. Level 3 means there is an outbreak of mass infections, under which daily virus cases exceed 100, according to the KCDC.

The country also decided Sunday to allow spectators to start attending sports events, albeit in a limited number, as early as this week under the condition that strict infection prevention measures are taken.

Officials from a publishing company hold a videoconference with a publishing house in Indonesia at a book fair event held at COEX in southern Seoul on June 29, 2020. (Yonhap)

The country reported 12 additional imported cases, raising the total such cases to 1,562.

At least 19 cases were connected to cluster infections on two Russia-flagged cargo ships docked at a port in the southeastern city of Busan.

Imported cases, once the main source of virus cases here, fell to a single-digit figure early this month after the country strengthened quarantine measures on all international arrivals in April.

But such cases have bounced back to double-digit numbers since mid-June.

Imported cases accounted for 34.1 percent of the total new virus cases reported over the past two weeks, according to the KCDC.

South Korea, meanwhile, reported no additional deaths, bringing the total death toll to 282. The fatality rate was 2.21 percent.

The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 11,429, up 65 from the previous day.

The country has carried out 1,259,954 tests since Jan. 3.


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