By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea appealed on Tuesday for people to stick to social-distancing even as they prepared to celebrate a major holiday, with the novel coronavirus posing a once-in-a-century threat even though the number of new cases has been edging lower.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 38 new infections by midnight on Monday, for a fifth day of double-digit increases, taking the national tally to 23,699 cases, with 407 deaths.
The numbers came a day after the daily tally fell to its lowest since new virus clusters emerged last month at a church and a major political rally, leading to more than 1,800 infections.
Health authorities pleaded for people to stay at home and shun gatherings ahead of the Korean autumn thanksgiving holiday of Chuseok, which begins on Wednesday, although millions are still expected to travel across the country.
"We're in a disaster situation of infectious disease that we could face once a century. Even if it's a bit uncomfortable and doesn't feel like Chuseok, we urge you to follow anti-virus measures at any cost," KDCA official Kwon Jun-wook told a briefing.
Kwon said the declining trend in cases was a result of social distancing over recent weeks and the country should not repeat the mistakes that brought surges in cases after two previous holidays.
Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae also raised the danger of the Chuseok holiday sparking another surge of infections.
"Keeping distancing rules and wearing masks is the safest way to protect you, your family and society," Kang said.
The government eased some social distancing rules after the rate of infections slowed this month but imposed special measures for the holiday, including banning dining at motorway rest areas and nursing home visits and requiring temperature checks at all stations.
Kang also warned of strict punishment against anyone who takes part in a political rally. Authorities have said they have banned some 137 demonstrations.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, additional reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Robert Birsel)