South Korea reported fewer than 50 new coronavirus cases for the first time since its peak at the end of February as daily infections in Asia’s largest outbreak outside China continued to trend downward.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said on Monday there were 47 new infections as of midnight on Sunday compared with 81 recorded a day earlier, taking the national cumulative tally to 10,284.
The death toll rose by three to 186, while another 135 people have recovered from the virus for a total of 6,598.
South Korea has largely managed to bring the epidemic under control for now, with around 100 or fewer new daily cases for the past month, but it was the first time the rate of daily cases dropped below 50 since 909 were reported on Feb. 29.
But officials urged even greater vigilance, saying a large epidemic could reemerge at any time, with smaller outbreaks in churches, hospitals and nursing homes, as well as infections among travellers, continuing to arise.
A fall in daily demand for tests to some 6,000 from around 10,000 over the weekend contributed to the decline in numbers, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said.
“We are taking great caution against any optimistic expectations with this one-off figure,” he told a regular briefing.
BREAKING OUT OF ISOLATION
On Saturday, the government extended its intensive social distancing campaign by two weeks, citing sustained infections among small clusters and travellers.
South Koreans had refrained from socialising in February when the number of patients exponentially rose, but more people started going out recently as the weather became warmer and fatigue grew about social distancing, Kim said.
The movement of citizens spiked about 20% over the weekend compared to the end of February, he said, citing data from the state-run statistics agency and SK Telecom, the country’s largest mobile operator.
Starting Sunday, the government toughened penalties for those who violate self-quarantine rules to up to 10 million won ($8,100) in fines or one year in prison from 3 million won ($2,400) in fines.
Authorities have reported several cases of breaching quarantine rules over the past few days. The Gunpo city government south of Seoul said on Sunday it has filed a complaint with police against a couple in their 50s and their children who broke away from isolation and went out even after testing positive for the virus.
A Korean student residing in the United States sparked public uproar after taking fever remedy before flying home late last month. The student was found to have contracted the virus, putting some 20 other people who took the same flight in self quarantine.
“We cannot maintain social distancing for ever,” Kim said. “But it is the most effective measure to help protect others and yourself.”