S. Korea steps up efforts against cluster virus infections amid slowing new cases

March 13, 2020

 South Korea saw another decline in its daily new infections Friday, as massive testings in the southeastern city of Daegu, the epicenter of the new coronavirus here, were nearing an end, but health authorities were ramping up measures to contain cluster infections across the nation.

The 110 new cases of the coronavirus, which were detected Thursday and marked the lowest number of daily infections in more than two weeks, brought the nation’s total infections to 7,979.

A total of 177 patients were discharged from hospitals Thursday after they were declared cured, marking the biggest one-day increase so far and exceeding the number of daily new infections for the first time since Jan. 20, when the virus was first detected on South Korean soil.

Thursday’s additional cases, which followed the 114 new cases detected Wednesday, were also far below the daily increases of 500 or more last week.

So far, 67 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, have died in South Korea from the respiratory virus that emerged in China late last year, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

About 61 percent of confirmed cases have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, which is the country’s fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million.

The pace of daily new inflections has shown signs of slowing in recent days as health authorities completed extensive testing of 210,000 Shincheonji followers who are at the center of the rapid spread, but authorities are still on high alert over new clusters of infections, including at a call center in Seoul’s Guro district and the country’s government complex in the administrative city of Sejong.

Of the 110 new cases, 61 are in Daegu and four are in North Gyeongsang, the KCDC said. The total number of confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the two epicenters of the virus outbreak here, stood at 5,928 and 1,147, respectively.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Friday the central government is taking steps to designate Daegu and North Gyeongsang as “special disaster zones,” in a bid to offer medical and financial support to help the regions recover from the virus.

While Daegu and North Gyeongsang still account for a majority of daily new infections, clusters of infections in Seoul and neighboring areas are feared to worsen.

Seoul’s virus caseload rose by 13 to 225 and Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul, saw its confirmed cases climb by seven to 185. Incheon, west of Seoul, reported two new cases, bringing the city’s total infections to 27.

New cases were detected in other major provinces and cities, including South Chungcheong, Daejeon and Sejong.

In the largest cluster of infections in Seoul so far, at least 100 people linked to a call center in southern Seoul had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday, highlighting concerns about the virus’ spread in confined spaces and within the metropolitan area.

Raising an alarm bell on the spread of the virus at a sprawling government complex in the administrative capital of Sejong, at least 26 civil servants were infected with the virus over the past three days. Like other cluster infections, authorities can’t trace where the ministry’s cluster started.

Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official who is in charge of quarantine work, told a media briefing that health authorities will require 3,612 followers of Shincheonji, who work at hospitals, kindergartens or nursing homes across nations, to get tests.

Yoon said the spread of the virus has showed signs of stabilization but warned against the “danger” of a growing number of imported virus cases.

Since raising the virus alert level to “red,” the highest level, on Feb. 23, health authorities have focused on halting the spread of the virus in Daegu and North Gyeongsang.

The World Health Organization declared Wednesday that the global coronavirus crisis is now a pandemic as the virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica.

South Korea had released a total of 510 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Thursday, up 177 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.

The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 17,940 as of Thursday, down 213 from the day before, it said. The country has tested a total of 240,668 suspected cases, with 222,728 testing negative.

Currently, there is no evidence that the new coronavirus is airborne. WHO said the virus is transmitted through droplets or close contact.