South Korea reported a slight uptick in new cases of the novel coronavirus Tuesday, driven by a steady rise in cluster infections and imported cases.
In the face of community spread of the virus, the country again pushed back the new school year, with the introduction of online classes. The opening of kindergartens and child care centers has been delayed indefinitely.
The 125 new cases, which were detected Monday and up from 78 new cases a day earlier, brought the nation's total infections to 9,786, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
The country's death toll rose by five to 163, with more than half of fatalities being patients aged 80 or older, the KCDC said.
The number of patients in critical condition was 51.
Of the 125 new cases of COVID-19, 60 were in Daegu, the epicenter of the virus outbreak here, following mass infections at a hospital. The total number of cases reported in Daegu and the surrounding North Gyeongsang Province reached 6,684 and 1,300, respectively.
Other major provinces and cities also reported infections, with 24 additional cases in Seoul after more confirmed cases were reported at a church that already had over 20 cases. Gyeonggi Province identified 13 new infections following cluster transmission reported at a hospital. Incheon, a port city just west of Seoul, added six new cases.
The country also detected 15 cases coming from overseas at quarantine checkpoints, up from 12 cases reported the previous day, raising the country's total number of imported cases to 518.
Of the 518 imported virus cases, only 42 were foreign nationals, according to the KCDC.
To better contain imported cases, South Korea will enforce a two-week mandatory quarantine on all entrants from overseas, starting Wednesday.
Under the new measure, all arrivals to the country regardless of nationality are required to stay in isolation for 14 days.
Visitors without local addresses are to stay in government-designated facilities at their own expense.
"We believe the number of short-term foreign visitors will go down if we enforce a two-week mandatory quarantine," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said at a press briefing. "We will utilize quarantine facilities with 1,600 rooms to accommodate arrivals, but we can provide more rooms depending on the situation."
Kim said around 530 South Koreans who are to be airlifted from virus-hit Italy will also be isolated for two weeks after they arrive here Wednesday and Thursday.
He added that the government will enforce stern legal measures against those who breach quarantine rules, adding that authorities will not show leniency.
Amid persistent concerns over infections in communities, the education ministry announced that the new school year for middle and high school senior students will start with online classes on April 9.
The new academic year here usually starts in early March, but the country had already postponed it three times over the spread of COVID-19.
The unprecedented move to introduce online classes at elementary, middle and high schools nationwide will be carried out step by step, depending on grades, according to the ministry.
South Korea has been pushing for an extensive 15-day social distancing campaign since March 22 to stem small-scale cluster infections.
Citizens are strongly urged to stay home, except for essential needs or jobs. The government has also strongly recommended people suspend religious gatherings, indoor sports activities, and visits to nightclubs and other entertainment venues.
"If we ease our social distancing campaign, there is a high possibility that the virus could spread rapidly in the country again," Kim said.
The KCDC said 5,408 patients have recovered as of Tuesday, up from 5,228 the previous day, and 4,216 are receiving treatment, slightly down from 4,275 the previous day.
Health authorities said they are preparing to release COVID-19 treatment guidelines using blood plasma from those who have recovered.
A total of 383,886 people have tested negative for the virus out of 410,564 people tested since Jan. 3. The virus was first detected in the country on Jan. 20.
Meanwhile, to help minimize the economic fallout from the spread of the new coronavirus, South Korea said Monday it will push for a second extra budget worth 7.1 trillion won (US$5.8 billion) to provide shopping coupons and certificates to households.
The government also decided to set aside 9.1 trillion won for the relief package for 14 million low-income households that comprise 35 million people in a country with a population of 51 million.
Under the plan, 1 million won would be given to each household with four or more people that rank in the bottom 70 percent of income earners. (Yonhap)