SEOUL, Sept. 5 (Korea Bizwire) — South Korean health authorities said Saturday that it is a “positive” sign that the number of additional new coronavirus cases here stayed below 200 for the third straight day, but they urged people not to let down their guard as the pandemic could flare up any time.
The country reported 168 new COVID-19 cases, including 158 local infections, raising the total caseload to 21,010, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
A majority of the locally transmitted cases came from the greater Seoul area, including 51 in Seoul and 47 in nearby Gyeonggi Province. Incheon, west of Seoul, also reported 14 cases.
“There were many areas that could be positively seen when looking at Saturday’s circumstances,” Kwon Joon-wook, deputy director at the Central Disease Control Headquarters, said in a daily press briefing.
“Above all, the number of new cases declined, and the volume and percentage of untraceable cases fell. The rise in patients in serious or critical condition has slowed, and the number of those under home isolation is trending lower,” Kwon said.
South Korea has been posting triple-digit rises for around three weeks due to cluster infections tied to a slew of churches and an anti-government rally in central Seoul in mid-August.
After keeping the new cases of COVID-19 in two-digit figures for more than five months, South Korea added more than 100 cases on Aug. 14 before the number shot up to 441 on Aug. 27. It then fell below 300 on Sunday.
But Kwon stressed that it is still too early to be complacent.
“We are in a situation where a mass outbreak could spread nationally at any time. We are at a time when accumulated risks, which could exceed the quarantine capacity and paralyze the medical system, are very large,” he said, voicing concern over cluster infections.
The proportion of new patients with unidentified transmission routes hit 22.4 percent over the past two weeks, indicating there could be more unknown infections in local communities. Cluster infections accounted for 42.6 percent of new outbreaks over the period.
While the church and rally-related clusters accounted for a large portion of the recent infections, reaching 1,156 and 510, respectively, as of noon Saturday, other cluster infections have popped up across the country.
Thirty cases, including 12 in the southeastern city of Daegu, have been identified in relation to a promotional meeting on health products. Health authorities suspect the cluster traces to the anti-government rally.
Two hospitals in Seoul together reported more than 20 cases, while infections also broke out at an indoor bar and a children’s book company in Gyeonggi Province. More than 20 have also tested positive at a kimchi factory in South Chungcheong Province.
While the latest figure marks a fall from 198 cases on Friday, health authorities said the country should remain on alert, calling for citizens to abide by the government’s tightened social distancing guidelines that were extended for another week.
South Korea on Friday decided to extend tougher anti-virus curbs on restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops in the greater Seoul area for another week, as sporadic cluster infections and untraceable cases are still popping up in the densely populated area.
Since Sunday, the country has been limiting operations of restaurants, bakeries and franchise coffee chains in the Seoul metropolitan area under the so-called Level 2.5 social distancing guidelines, while implementing Level 2 measures across the country since mid-August.
“While (new cases) are coming in at around 200 and are on a decline, it is not yet a stage to relax,” Health Minister Park Neunghoo said in a government response meeting held at the government complex in Seoul.
“Until the (number) of patients substantially falls to a level that does not put a burden on quarantining and the health system, we need citizens to understand and endure a bit more,” said Park.
The health minister mentioned growing concerns over a rise in critically ill patients, asking workers at health institutions and care centers for the elderly to stay on alert.
The number of patients in serious or critical condition came to 159, up two from the previous day and setting a new record since the country reported its first COVID-19 case in late January.
South Korea added two more deaths, raising the death toll to 333. Some 97 percent of the deaths came from patients who had underlying diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes.
By age group, the death toll was highest at 20 percent for those in their 80s or older.
The number of newly identified imported cases came to 10.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries reached 16,009, up 226 from the previous day.
South Korea has carried out 2,037,045 COVID-19 tests since Jan. 3.