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Korea’s daily virus tally drops to 7-week low: ministry

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip during a Thursday press briefing (Health Minister)
Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip during a Thursday press briefing (Health Minister)

South Korea’s daily infection tally on Thursday fell to 34 -- the lowest since Feb. 20, the eve of its first COVID-19 spike induced by a “superspreading event” at a church in Daegu. The total now stands at 10,423, according to the Health Ministry figure.

The worst may have passed for Daegu and surrounding North Gyeongsang Province -- whose cases together account for 77 percent of the national total -- which added four and zero cases, respectively.

But more new cases are being reported in the greater Seoul area than the rest of the country since late March. Twenty-two out of 34 newly confirmed patients were in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province.

Around 66 percent of all patients have recovered. Four more people died, with the death toll reaching 204.

Despite the drop, social distancing breach in the form of partying, growing demand for quarantine checks and impending elections continue to pose challenges for Korea’s virus containment efforts, health officials say.

Nightlife on hold

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said in a press briefing that nightlife activities were at the center of new infection clusters.

On Tuesday, health officials said a woman who works at an escort bar in Gangnam tested positive for COVID-19 on April 2.

She went into self-isolation on March 29, two days after she attended to an infected customer who had recently been to Japan. But in the two-day interim, at least 500 customers are believed to have visited the bar, which is staffed by over 100 employees.

An official at Gangnam’s health department said there were over 200 such escort bars in the district.

“While the district office has advised the bars to heed hygiene guidelines such as face mask-wearing since early March, they weren’t expected to be strictly followed as the nature of the business involves eating and drinking, just like other regular restaurants,” he said.

Following what could potentially be a mass infection at the bar, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon on Wednesday issued an order closing nightlife venues including sex businesses until April 19.

Subject to the order are 66 clubs, 58 discos, 2,539 karaoke bars and 2,022 escort bars and clubs, the city office said.

Between March 22 and Sunday, 30,016 bars and clubs have been inspected by city and district offices under the supervision of the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, according to the vice health minister.

As of Sunday, 43 bars and clubs have gotten “administrative orders,” he said. Both business owners and customers can face fines of up to 3 million won ($2,460) if found in violation.

Quarantine monitoring

Tens of thousands are placed under self-quarantine in Korea, and officials are straining to make sure the orders are being observed.

According to Interior Ministry data, the number of quarantined individuals was 89,905 as of Tuesday, 45 percent of whom were recent visitors from overseas. This is a steep increase from 40,147 on April 1, when Korea instituted a mandatory two-week quarantine for all arrivals.

As increasingly more are being quarantined, health officials said extra measures would be implemented for monitoring possible instances of noncompliance.

One of the proposed measures was an electronic wristband that tracks the wearer’s movements, the use of which remains debated.

For now, local governments check in on people in home isolation through phone calls and mobile applications.

Officials said about six to seven people broke the stay-at-home order daily.

From Sunday, breaking quarantine can result in up to a year in jail and fines of up to 10 million won as per laws on infectious disease control. For noncitizens, the violation will lead to deportation.

Voting amid virus perils

Health officials said talks were still underway to keep the imminent parliamentary election -- slated for April 15 -- infection-free.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that it was finalizing the safe voting guidance with the National Election Commission and the Interior Ministry, which oversees election procedures.

The voting safety precautions released last week by the election commission include maintaining 1-meter distance between voters, wearing face masks and gloves and refraining from engaging in nonessential conversations at the polling stations.

“Protecting voting rights while minimizing risks of infections is the government’s goal,” said Kim of Health Ministry.

The vice minister said steps on how confirmed patients and those who are in quarantine will be able to vote will be announced before next week.

By Kim Arin (