S. Korea designates worst-hit virus regions ‘special disaster zones’

South Korean army soldiers wearing protective suits move to spray disinfectant in Daegu on Sunday. (AP pic)

SEOUL: South Korea on Sunday reported 76 new coronavirus cases and three more deaths, a fall in new cases to double-digits for the first time in over three weeks, as President Moon Jae-in declared the hardest-hit provinces “special disaster zones”.

It is the first time South Korea has declared a region a disaster zone from an infectious disease and under the status the government can subsidise up to 50% of restoration expenses and exempt residents from taxes and utility payments.

South Korea, which has the highest number of cases in Asia after China, now has a total of 8,162 confirmed infections and 75 deaths, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

South Korea has been experiencing a downward trend in new cases and the latest numbers are significantly lower than the peak of 909 cases reported on Feb 29 and down from the 107 recorded on Saturday.

Citing extended economic fallout from the coronavirus, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said on Sunday: “We will brace for all possibilities. We will minimise the impact on the economy of the people.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in declared Daegu and North Gyeongsang province as “special disaster zones”, the presidential Blue House spokesman Kang Min-seok said.

Forty-one of the new coronavirus cases were from the city of Daegu, where a secretive church at the centre of the outbreak is located. The church has been linked to over 61% of cases, KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook told a briefing on Sunday.

A total of 120 patients were released from hospitals and for the third day in a row the daily number of those recovered exceeded that of new confirmed cases since South Korea’s first case was confirmed on Jan 20.

The drop in new cases come after most of the mass infection cases linked to the church members were identified, said Kwon.

“What’s more important now is the remaining clusters of infection that is quietly making headway in the community.”

He pointed to a call centre in Seoul, medical centres and nursing homes across as the new clusters.

Starting Sunday, South Korea began to subject visitors from France, Germany, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands to stricter border checks, after imposing similar rules for China, Italy and Iran suffering a major outbreak.

Apart from measuring passengers’ temperatures at the airport, visitors from those countries now need to download an app the South Korean government rolled out to report whether they have any symptoms related to the virus every day.

South Korea has been testing hundreds of thousands of people and tracking potential carriers like detectives, using cellphone and satellite technology.