Lower trend in new coronavirus cases raises glimmer of hope in South Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) - A downward trend in new coronavirus cases in South Korea raised hope on Tuesday that Asia’s biggest outbreak outside China may be slowing, but officials urged vigilance with new clusters of infections emerging in a call center and a dance class.

Women wearing masks make their way in downtown amid the rise in confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Daegu, South Korea, March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 35 new coronavirus cases, down from a peak of 909 on Feb. 29. The new figures brought the national tally to 7,513, while the death toll rose by three to 54.

The numbers are expected to be updated later on Tuesday.

The fall in the daily tally of new infections to its lowest level in 11 days coincided with the completion of testing of most of the roughly 200,000 followers of a fringe Christian church at the center of South Korea’s epidemic.

Yoon Tae-ho, director general for public health policy at the health ministry, urged businesses to do what they could to help stem the outbreak after the discovery of 64 new cases among call-centre workers and their relatives.

“The rate of increase is declining but there are still many new cases,” Yoon told a briefing.

“We need to pay attention to crowded workplaces including call centers. The cooperation of business owners is essential as they shouldn’t let employees come in if they show symptoms like fever.”

More than 90% of South Korea’s cases have been in the southeastern city of Daegu, where the church at the center of the outbreak is based, and the nearby province of North Gyeongsang.

But alarm has been raised in the capital, Seoul, with the new cases there linked to the call-center, operated by an insurance company.

Authorities are investigating in the cluster and say more infections are likely among the 200 people packed into the floor where the call-center is located. They are being tested.

Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, told a briefing the call-center outbreak was the capital’s largest.

“We will urgently check companies where many people work in the same space like call centres,” Park said.

More than 90 out of 102 cases in the central province of South Chungcheong have been traced to a Zumba dance class.

Among the infections linked to the class were three government officials, including one from the health ministry, triggering extensive disinfection efforts at the buildings where they work.

The U.S. military in south Korea reported a new case on Tuesday, a Korean worker at a base in Daegu. That took the total number of infections to nine among soldiers, employees or people related to the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

President Moon Jae-in has expressed guarded hope for the fight against the virus, saying the downward trend in new infections could lead to a phase of stability, but he warned that it was too early for optimism.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel