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(3rd LD) New virus cases dip to more than 2-week low, cluster infections still a concern

All News 15:17 September 03, 2020

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SEOUL, Sept. 3 (Yonhap) -- The number of additional new coronavirus cases fell to below 200 for the first time in more than two weeks Thursday, but cluster infections continued to pop up across the country and critically ill patients are on the rise.

The country reported 195 new COVID-19 cases, including 188 local infections, raising the total caseload to 20,644, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

Thursday's daily tally marks the smallest since 197 on Aug. 17.

Health authorities said this week will be critical in determining whether the virus curve sharply flattens or not.

The country plans to decide whether to extend the quasi-Level 3 scheme in greater Seoul beyond Sunday over the weekend.

South Korea has been posting triple-digit rises for three weeks due to cluster infections tied to a slew of churches and an anti-government rally in central Seoul on Aug. 15.

Medical workers carry out new coronavirus tests at a makeshift clinic in Gwangju, 320 kilometers south of Seoul, on Sept. 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

On Aug. 14, the country reported more than 100 patients. The daily new infections continued to snowball to 441 last Thursday, before sliding to below 300 on Sunday. The number of new cases stayed under 300 through Wednesday.

The recent infections were worrisome as a huge chunk of the new infections came from the greater Seoul area that houses half of the country's 51-million population.

South Korea launched a Level 2 social distancing scheme in greater Seoul on Aug. 16 and nationwide on Aug. 23, under which indoor meetings of more than 50 people and open-air gatherings of over 100 people are banned.

So-called risk-prone facilities, including karaoke rooms, clubs, PC cafes and buffets, have been ordered to shut down.

But since Sunday, the country been implementing a quasi-Level 3 scheme in the Seoul metropolitan area, in which restaurants can only offer takeout after 9 p.m. Franchise coffee chains can only offer takeaway around the clock.

Health authorities say they will continue to monitor the effect of the distancing scheme before deciding whether the country should move on to the highest level of three, which would ban all gatherings of 10 or more people.

Health authorities said they hope that the stricter nationwide social distancing scheme will reduce the figure to below 100, which is considered a manageable level under the local medical system.

"Although the numbers are decreasing at a slow pace, we can say that the Level 2 social distancing scheme was effective," KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook said. "We are looking forward to the outcome of the enhanced policy (which went into effect in greater Seoul on Sunday) as well."

Medical workers wear protective suits at a makeshift clinic in Gwangju, 320 kilometers south of Seoul, on Sept. 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

Of the locally transmitted cases, Seoul added 69 cases, while the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and the western port city of Incheon reported 64 and 15 cases, respectively.

Other municipalities reported additional infections, with the southwestern city of Gwangju adding six cases and the central city of Daejeon reporting four new cases. The southern port city of Ulsan added seven.

As of noon Thursday, a total of 1,139 cases had been traced to the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, a hotbed of the recent spike in new infections, up 22 from the previous day. The church members have been blamed for having been lax in implementing strict social distancing rules.

Among the patients from the church, 40 percent of them were aged 60 and above. The infections also have caused multiple stages of transmissions, leading to outbreaks in 27 other locations, including offices and hospitals.

Another 462 virus cases were tied to the Aug. 15 demonstration in central Seoul, up 21 from a day earlier.

Other sporadic cluster infections were also observed across the nation.

An aviation security firm in western Seoul, which reported its first patient Sunday, added nine more patients, raising the caseload to 10.

A kimchi factory in Cheongyang, 124 kilometers south of the capital city, has reported 19 infections so far.

Visitors receive new coronavirus tests at a makeshift clinic located in Cheongyang, 124 kilometers south of Seoul, on Sept. 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

Health authorities say that while the numbers of new patients are ostensibly on a downward trend, the country's virus fight is still perilous due to the growing number of patients in critical conditions, which may potentially lead to more fatalities.

"The number of new patients in greater Seoul came to 148, hovering above the 100 threshold for the fourth consecutive day. The virus is also spreading nationwide, with sporadic infections continuing at religious facilities, gyms, hospitals and schools," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official, said in a daily briefing.

Yoon added that this week is a "critical moment" for South Korea's efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

The proportion of new patients with unidentified transmission routes also hit a new record high of 24.4 percent over the past two weeks, indicating there could be more unknown infections in local communities. Cluster infections accounted for 41 percent of new outbreaks over the period.

The number of patients in serious or critical condition came to 154, soaring 31 from the previous day and setting a new record since the country reported its first COVID-19 case in late January.

It also marks a sharp rise from just single-digit figures reported through mid-August.

Health authorities said the number of such patients is expected to continue to grow further down the road. The current figure already beats the government's previous estimated peak of 134.

To accommodate such patients in critical condition, South Korea said it plans to mobilize hospital beds from the military amid growing concerns over shortages.

South Korea added three deaths, raising the death toll to 329. The overall fatality rate reached 1.59 percent.

An elevator is blocked off at the National Assembly in western Seoul on Sept. 3, 2020, as a worker at the office of the main opposition People Power Party was tested positive for COVID-19.

Most of the victims also had underlying diseases. Patients aged below 60 accounted for only 0.15 percent of the total reported deaths so far.

The number of newly identified imported cases came to seven.

Among the imported infections, three were from the United States. There were also cases from the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Algeria.

The accumulated number of imported cases reached 2,858, with South Korean nationals accounting for 63 percent.

Starting next week, health authorities said they will slap fines or even jail terms on sailors handing in fabricated polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results.

The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries reached 15,529, up 173 from the previous day. Slightly more than three-quarters of the patients identified here were cured.

South Korea has carried out 2,000,552 COVID-19 tests since Jan. 3.

Over the past two weeks, the daily number of COVID-19 tests carried out here came to 19,099, doubling from the same period earlier.

colin@yna.co.kr
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