Korea has recorded new Covid-19 cases below 200 for a week, but the health authorities warned people against lowering guards, citing sporadic cluster infections throughout the country.
The nation reported 156 new virus cases, including 144 local infections, on Wednesday, far lower than over 400 in late August. The cumulative caseload rose to 21,588 as of midnight Tuesday, the Korea Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention said.
Three more people died of Covid-19, pushing the death toll to 344. The fatality rate reached 1.59 percent. Over the past week, the number of deaths neared 20, reflecting the growing share of aged, seriously ill patients. An additional 387 people were discharged from quarantine, increasing the total to 17,023. The country has tested 2,082,234 people since Jan. 3.
Of the 144 locally transmitted cases, 100 occurred in the greater Seoul area, including Incheon and Gyeonggi Province.
The government is tightening its grip on preventive measures, as the nation's infection curve showed a modest improvement recently. Korea has extended the strengthened Level 2.5 social distancing measure for the third consecutive week to bring down the number of newly confirmed patients below 100 by the end of the week.
"A rapid increase of new virus cases has been halted and the infections are slowing," said Kwon Joon-wook, deputy head of the Central Disease Control Headquarters. "Only the Seoul greater area and Gwangju are reporting patients in double digits, and many municipalities have not seen a new infection."
The number of daily outbreaks linked to Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul and an anti-government demonstration on Aug. 15 had recorded double-digit figures until last week. However, only four new patients related to the church and seven with the rally were confirmed on Tuesday. The number of confirmed cases related to the church led by the controversial pastor, Jeon Kwang-hoon, has climbed to 1,167, while the caseload tied to the rally has reached 539 as of noon Tuesday.
Health officials believe that preventive measures' implementation will determine the success or failure of responding to Covid-19 in the near future.
If the country does not see a clear improvement in the situation, the Level 2.5 social distancing measure will have to stay put to prevent further infections, officials said. They plan to analyze this week's infection trend and the number of cluster infections to decide whether to end the enhanced social distancing scheme or extend it for another week.
Under the measures, restaurants in the Seoul metro region can operate from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. but can only offer takeout after that time. Franchise coffee chains, bakeries and ice cream parlors can offer only takeaways around the clock.
The measures for the upcoming Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) holiday, which has been set as a special preventive period for Covid-19, are also expected to vary depending on outbreaks until then.
This year's Chuseok holiday runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4. The Korean autumn harvest celebration is one of the country's biggest traditional holidays and serves as a chance for family members to visit their hometowns. Health authorities asked people to skip this year's reunion.
At a daily task force meeting, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also denounced mass protest rallies planned by conservative civic groups for the early October, like the one they held on the National Liberation Day in central Seoul, pledging the government's strict law enforcement to stamp out any quarantine interference.
"Some groups are planning to stage large-scale rallies on National Foundation Day, which falls during the Chuseok holiday season, and this is very deplorable," Chung said. "I want to ask them if they care about the lives and safety of the people at all."
Korea reported 12 imported cases. Four patients were from Russia, three from the U.S., two from Uzbekistan, and one from Qatar, Ukraine, and Algeria.