March 12, 2020 / 1:29 AM / 21 days ago

South Korea tries to contain smaller outbreaks as new coronavirus cases slow

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea on Thursday reported 114 new coronavirus cases and six more deaths, a relative decline in new cases that raised tentative hopes the epidemic was slowing despite the emergence of new clusters.

Pedestrians wearing masks to prevent contracting the coronavirus walk on a zebra crossing in Seoul, South Korea, March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Health officials were trying to track down and contain a number of new clusters of infections, including at a call center in the capital Seoul.

The coming days will be crucial, authorities said.

“It is too early to say we are overcoming the disease,” Yoon Tae-ho, director general for public health policy, said at a briefing. “We are still witnessing sporadic outbreaks so we cannot lower our guard.”

The new cases bring South Korea’s total to 7,869, with 67 deaths, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said (KCDC).

The numbers are far lower than the peak of 909 cases reported on Feb. 29, and health officials said the trend does appear to be slowing in what has been the largest outbreak in Asia outside of China.

Still, authorities said the government will press its efforts to prevent new clusters from spreading.

Nineteen of the new cases reported on Thursday were in Seoul, where at least 102 people working at a call center have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Nearly 800 people working in the call center and 200 residents of the building have been tested, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said.

“Containing the spread from the call center is decisive in blocking additional transmission of the coronavirus,” Park said. “We will focus all necessary personal and material support on the area.”

Seventy-three of the new cases were from the city of Daegu, the epicenter of the country’s outbreak.

Yoon urged South Koreans across the country to avoid public gatherings and to keep a distance from other people.

The government also said it would expand fever screening and other monitoring measures for people arriving from certain European countries.

South Korea is one of several countries affected by a new U.S. Defense Department decision announced on Thursday to restrict travel by its troops and their families for the next 60 days.

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, along with thousands of civilian employees and family members.

At least nine people connected to the U.S. military in South Korea have tested positive for the virus, and bases have imposed some restrictions and additional screening at their gates.

Reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Stephen Coates

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