Korea's new Covid-19 cases fell to the lowest level in more than two weeks on Thursday, but the continuous rise of seriously ill patients kept health officials busy securing medical equipment and workforce.
The nation reported 195 new virus cases -- 188 local infections and seven foreign arrivals -- raising the cumulative caseload to 20,644 as of midnight Wednesday, the Korea Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention said. It was the first time the daily caseload dropped below 200 since Aug. 17.
Despite the fall in the new cases, the number of critical and severely ill patients increased by 31 to 154, the highest number since the outbreak of Covid-19 in Korea.
The government said it would spend 105.4 billion won ($88.92 million) in 23 medical institutions to secure 110 more beds by September, and an additional 103 beds by the year-end. In total, it will secure 496 more beds by the first half of 2021.
Of the 195 locally transmitted cases, 148 were reported in the greater Seoul area, including Incheon and Gyeonggi Province. In Seoul, infections related to religious institutions and anti-government demonstrations have continued to increase. Cases tied to Sarang Jeil Church have increased to 1,117, and those related to anti-government rallies on Aug. 15 also climbed to 441 as of Tuesday.
Health officials also reported additional infections in other municipalities and provinces, with South Chungcheong Province and Ulsan reporting seven cases followed by six in Gwangju, five in South Jeolla Province, and four in Busan, Daejeon, and Gangwon Province.
Korea launched a Level Two social distancing scheme in greater Seoul on Aug. 16 and nationwide on Aug. 23, under which indoor meetings of more than 50 people and open-air gatherings of over 100 people are banned. The so-called risk-prone facilities, including karaoke rooms, clubs, PC cafes and buffets, have been ordered to shut down.
Since Sunday, the country has been implementing a Level 2.5 scheme in the Seoul metro region, in which restaurants can only offer takeout after 9 p.m. Franchise coffee chains can only offer takeaway around the clock.
Health authorities have said that they would continue to monitor the new distancing scheme's effect before deciding whether the country should move up to the highest Level Three social distancing scheme which bans the gathering of 10 or more people, dealing a severe blow to the national economy by nearly freezing most economic activities.
Authorities hope that the stricter nationwide social distancing scheme will reduce the daily virus cases below 100, which they said is controllable by the local medical system.
Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo reiterated his call for citizens to follow the newly set quarantine guidelines. "The explosive spread has slightly declined but confirmed cases continue to occur in three-digit numbers," Park said. "The government would like to reemphasize citizens to stick to the social distancing scheme."
This week is an important time to decide whether Covid-19 will spread significantly or transition to stability, he added.
Park stressed that containing the virus is essential as there are 4,786 patients in quarantine, and the exploding number of patients is threatening the nation's quarantine and medical systems.
"Also, the number of cases where the routes of infection were unknown also recorded the biggest share of 24 percent," Park said. "Social distancing is the best way to block the widespread spread of Covid-19 and prevent the rapid increase in severely ill patients."
The nation reported seven imported cases. Three patients were from the U.S., one from the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Algeria.
Three more people died of Covid-19 Wednesday, pushing up the death toll to 329. An additional 173 fully cured people were discharged from quarantine, increasing the total to 15,529. The total Covid-19 tests conducted by the country have also surpassed two million since the country first started to test patients in Jan.3. As of Wednesday, the country has tested 2,000,552 citizens.
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