By Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea on Sunday reported 76 new coronavirus cases and three deaths, marking the first time in over three weeks that new cases have dropped to double-digits, as President Moon Jae-in declared the hardest hit provinces “special disaster zones”.
It is the first time South Korea has declared a region a disaster zone from an infectious disease and under the status the government can subsidize up to 50% of restoration expenses and exempt residents from taxes and utility payments.
South Korea, which has the highest number of cases in Asia after China, now has a total to 8,162 confirmed infections and 75 deaths, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said (KCDC).
South Korea has been experiencing a downward trend in new cases and the latest numbers are significantly lower than the peak of 909 cases reported on Feb. 29 and down from the 107 recorded on Saturday.
Citing an extended economic fallout, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said: “We will brace for all possibilities. We will minimize the impact on the economy of the people.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in declared the southeastern city of Daegu and parts of North Gyeongsang province as “special disaster zones”, the presidential Blue House spokesman Kang Min-seok said.
Forty-one of the new coronavirus cases were from Daegu, where a secretive church at the center of the outbreak is located. The church has been linked to over 61% of cases, KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook told a briefing on Sunday.
Among the special disaster zones is Cheongdo county, home to around 43,000 people, where another cluster of coronavirus cases is located, and where South Korea’s first victim of the virus died.
SPECIAL ENTRY PROCEDURE
A total of 120 patients were released from hospitals and for the third day in a row the daily number of those recovered exceeded that of new confirmed cases since South Korea’s first case was confirmed on Jan. 20.
“The number of infected patients have been decreasing the past week, and a daily infection has dropped from the previous week’s 500 to 100,” health minister Park Neung-hoo told reporters on Sunday.
According to KCDC’s Kwon, the drop in new cases comes after most of the mass infection cases linked to the church members were identified. “What’s more important now is the remaining clusters of infection that is quietly making headway.”
He pointed to a call center in Seoul, medical centers and nursing homes across as the new clusters.
Starting Sunday, South Korea began to subject visitors from France, Germany, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands to – ‘special entry procedure’ – stricter border checks. It has imposed similar rules on travelers coming from China, Italy and Iran – countries that are suffering a major outbreak.
Apart from measuring temperature at the airport, visitors from those countries now need to download an app the South Korean government rolled out to report whether they have any symptoms related to the virus everyday.
South Korea is now planning to expand the procedure to all of its citizens and foreigners entering the country.
“Given the development of the global pandemic, we don’t see it will be as meaningful to apply the special entry procedure on a particular country any more,” said Park.
South Korea has been testing hundreds of thousands of people and tracking potential carriers like detectives, using cell phone and satellite technology.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Michael Perry and Himani Sarkar)