New virus cases under 400 for 3rd day ahead of eased social distancing

SEOUL-- South Korea's daily coronavirus cases were under 400 for the third consecutive day Sunday in the latest sign of a possible slowdown in the virus curve, with the country set to launch an eased social distancing scheme outside the greater Seoul area starting the next day.

The country added 372 more COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, including 326 local infections, raising the cumulative caseload to 80,896, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

The country added 393 cases the previous day. The decrease was in part attributable to a fewer number of tests carried out over the weekend.

Of the newly identified local infections, 141 cases were reported in Seoul and 109 cases in the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. Incheon, west of Seoul, reported 15 more cases.

The southeastern cities of Busan and Daegu accounted for eight and 11 cases, respectively.

From western Seoul, a gym facility reported 15 new patients, raising the total related caseload to 16.

A church in northern Seoul identified 11 patients, with a restaurant from the eastern part of the capital city reporting 69 COVID-19 cases.

Cases tied to a local Christian missionary group, called the International Mission (IM) reached 401, up four from the previous day. The related cases were reported nationwide.

A family gathering from the southern resort island of Jeju also has led to nine infections so far.

Since late last month, the local daily caseload has been moving in the 300-400 range due to cluster infections from unauthorized education facilities run by a Christian missionary group in the central and southwestern regions.

The government, in particular, remains on high alert over the possibility of another coronavirus resurgence in the greater Seoul region.

"It's a situation in which the risk of resurgence exists," Sohn Young-rae, a senior health official, said at a press briefing later in the day. He called for "special vigilance" by around 25 million residents in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province.

He cited an indication that the number of confirmed cases in the capital region is bouncing back again, while that of other areas is on the decline.

"Because of the large population in the Seoul metropolitan area and a large flow of people there, efforts to curb infections are less effective than non-capital areas," he added. "We are keeping a close watch on a possible change in the situation."

New virus infections nevertheless have been slowing down since the third wave of the pandemic peaked at a record high of 1,241 daily cases on Dec. 25.

With small business owners strongly protesting the country's tough social distancing scheme, which currently bans restaurants from having dine-in customers after 9 p.m., a revised guideline will be implemented starting Monday.

The new rules will extend operating hours of restaurants, cafes, bars and fitness clubs outside the Seoul metropolitan region by one hour to 10 p.m. The 9 p.m. closing will be maintained for Seoul and the surrounding areas.

Authorities, however, are especially vigilant over the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday that runs from Thursday to Saturday. Millions of South Koreans normally travel across the country to visit their relatives and families.

Accordingly, other details of the social distancing guideline, including the ban on the gathering of five or more people, will be maintained through next Sunday. South Korea operates a five-tier alert system.

Sohn requested that people in the greater Seoul area refrain from making trips during the holiday season.

The government plans to launch a special antivirus campaign over department stores, large scale marts and other major retail outlets during the period.

Another concern is reports of variant cases. Sohn said mutated viruses are spreading faster abroad, showing signs of becoming prevalent.

"We are assessing the situation each week, continuously gaining relevant information from the World Health Organization and other sources," he said.

While arrivals from Britain, South Africa and Brazil are at the focus of monitoring, the government will expand precautionary steps for those from other countries if necessary, he added.

A total of 51 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 variants in South Korea.

Meanwhile, 275 new infections were reported nationwide as of 9 p.m. Sunday, according to data compiled by the heath authorities and local governments.

It is 52 less than 327 tallied at the same time on Saturday. Among the 275 cases, 211, or 76.7 percent, were found in the capital area, which is under the second-highest social distancing level of 2.5, with Level 2 in place in other areas. In Seoul alone, 111 infections were confirmed.

Over the past two weeks, cluster infections accounted for 32.6 percent of newly added infections. Patients with unknown transmission routes took up 21.8 percent.

Imported cases came to 46.

It marked the highest figure since 46 cases posted on July 26 last year.

The United States accounted for 10 cases, with arrivals from Russia and Indonesia also being responsible for four cases each.

The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients reached 190, down seven from a day earlier.

South Korea added seven more deaths, raising the total to 1,471.

The fatality rate came to 1.82 percent.

The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries was up 360 from the previous day to reach 70,865. This indicates around 87.6 percent of the total patients reported here being cured.

South Korea has carried out 5,916,975 COVID-19 tests so far, including 23,622 the previous day.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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