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New COVID-19 case count in S. Korea stays below 200 for 3rd day


South Korea’s daily count of new COVID-19 cases stayed below 200 for the third consecutive day on Saturday, though health authorities are on alert over untraceable cases, sporadic outbreaks and the high number of critically ill patients.

Korea reported 168 new COVID-19 cases Saturday -- 158 locally transmitted and 10 imported -- posting fewer than 200 for the third consecutive day. The total caseload rose to 21,010, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are “positive” signs, Kwon Jun-wook, the KCDC’s deputy director, said at a briefing Saturday, referring to a downward trend in the number of new COVID-19 cases, cases with untraceable infection routes and those under quarantine.

With tightened social distancing rules in place, the “explosive” spread of the virus was contained and the country’s daily new COVID-19 case tally stayed below 300 for the seventh consecutive day on Saturday.

But health authorities also said it is not yet time to let our guard down, calling on members of the public to abide by the government’s tightened social distancing guidelines.

“While (new cases) are coming in at around 200 and are on a decline, we should not let our guard down yet,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said Saturday in a pan-government meeting on the country’s COVID-19 response.

“Until the (number) of patients substantially falls to a level that does not pose a burden on (the country’s) quarantine and health system, we need more understanding and a bit more patience from citizens,” Park said.

On Friday the government announced that it was extending its toughened social distancing guidelines for another week, since there was no definite slowdown in the infection rate.

The Level 2.5 social distancing rules, which were to end Sunday, will remain in place until Sept. 13 in the Greater Seoul area -- home to nearly half of the country’s population -- with restrictions to apply to more businesses.

Under the Level 2.5 social distancing campaign, operating hours were slashed for restaurants, bakeries and bars, with only takeout and delivery services allowed after 9 p.m. Dining in was banned at franchise coffee chains, with only takeaway and delivery services allowed. Private cram schools and indoor sports facilities were shut down. One-third of all employees working at government bodies, state-run agencies and public institutions are required to work from home.

Franchise bakeries and ice cream shops were added to the list of establishments where customers are not allowed to eat. Only delivery services and takeaway will be allowed. 

Social distancing in the Seoul metropolitan area was raised to Level 2 on Aug. 16 and to Level 2.5 on Aug. 30. Other parts of the country have had Level 2 social distancing guidelines in place since Aug. 23.

Level 2 social distancing rules were extended across the country until Sept. 20. Under the rules, 12 types of high-risk businesses including nightclubs and karaoke rooms have been shut down and indoor gatherings of more than 50 people are banned along with outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people, among other measures.

Korea has consistently posted triple-digit rises since Aug. 14 due to two massive infection clusters tied to the Sarang Jeil Church and an anti-government rally in central Seoul on Aug. 15.

COVID-19 cases linked to the Seoul-based church and the protest rose to 1,156 and 510, respectively, as of Saturday at noon.

While the massive anti-government rally became a source of the large outbreak here, far-right-wing civic organizations again reported to the police that they would hold another mass rally on Oct. 3, Korea’s National Foundation Day, according to the police. The police refused to allow the rally, given the stricter social distancing rules.

Other clusters of infections were traced to a business event, an office, a kimchi factory, a logistics center, churches, hospitals, hotels and a public sauna.

Amid the rise in COVID-19 cases, the number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition hit a record high of 159 as of midnight Saturday, up two from a day earlier, raising fears of a possible shortage of hospital beds. This marks a 17-fold increase from only nine people on Aug. 18. 

Most of the critically ill patients were in their 60s or over -- 23 percent were in their 80s, 42 percent in their 70s and 20 percent in their 60s. Another 9 percent were in their 50s, and 6 percent were in their 40s.

Some 22.4 percent of the new cases reported from Aug. 23-Sept. 5 had unidentified transmission routes, according to the KCDC, a slight decrease from the peak of 24.4 percent during the two-week period ending Thursday.

Saturday’s daily tally marks a fall from 198 cases on Friday.

Of the locally transmitted cases, the vast majority were still registered in the Seoul metropolitan area -- 51 in Seoul, 14 in neighboring Incheon and 47 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital.

Outside the Seoul metropolitan area, 10 cases were reported in Busan, eight cases each in South Gyeongsang Province and Gwangju, five cases in Daegu, four cases in South Chungcheong Province, three cases in Gangwon Province, two cases each in North Chungcheong Province, North Jeolla Province and Daejeon, and one case each in Ulsan and on Jeju Island.

Of the 10 imported cases, six were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other four detected during the quarantine screening process at the border. One case came from China, four from other parts of Asia and five from the Americas. Four of the newly diagnosed people were foreign nationals.

So far, 16,009 people, or 76.2 percent, have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 226 from a day earlier. Some 4,668 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine.

Two more people died of the coronavirus, bringing the death toll to 333. The overall fatality rate amounted to 1.58 percent. Some 97.3 percent of those who died had preexisting illnesses.

The country has carried out 2,037,045 tests since Jan. 3, with 52,077 people awaiting results as of Saturday.

By Ock Hyun-ju (