SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea said on Saturday it will extend its intensive social distancing campaign scheduled to end on Monday by two weeks in a bid to curb the rate of coronavirus infections to around 50 a day.
The country has largely managed to bring under control Asia’s largest epidemic outside China with around 100 or fewer new daily cases. But smaller outbreaks in churches, hospitals and nursing homes, as well as infections among travelers, continue to emerge.
This week, the government has been gauging whether it should extend a 15-day intensive social distancing policy it implemented on March 21, under which high-risk facilities were urged to close and religious, sports and entertainment gatherings were banned.
But it is “too early to be at ease,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said, citing a recent spike in imported cases and small cluster infections which also prompted the government to cancel the re-opening of schools next week.
“Our goal is to be able to control infections in a way that our health and medical system, including personnel and sickbeds, can handle them at usual levels,” Park told a briefing after an government meeting on the coronavirus.
“If the number goes down to 50 or lower, stable treatment of the patients including the critically ill will be possible without much pressure on the system.”
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 94 new cases on Saturday, taking the national tally to 10,156. The death toll rose by nine to 183, while more than 300 recovered from the virus for a total of 6,325.
Of the new, 32 were repatriated cases, mostly Koreans, while 31 were from the greater Seoul area and 26 from the hardest-hit city of Daegu, KCDC data showed.
Social distancing played a role in restraining domestic group transmissions by some 70% during the first 11 days compared with the last 11 days before it took effect, Park said.
But there are signs that people restarted going out and socializing as fatigue about isolation grew and the weather improved, he said.
“We are well aware that many citizens are feeling exhausted and lethargic under continued social distancing,” Park said. “But if we get loose, the strenuous efforts that the government and the people have made so far might come to nothing.”
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Ros Russell