By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea reported fewer than 50 new coronavirus cases for the first time since its peak in late February, earning the praise of the World Health Organization for combatting the spread in one of the first countries to be hard-hit by the disease.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said there were 47 new infections as of midnight on Sunday compared with 81 recorded a day earlier, taking the national tally to 10,284.
The death toll rose by eight to 191, while another 135 people have recovered from the virus for a total of 6,598.
South Korea has been bringing the epidemic under control, with about 100 or fewer new daily cases for the past month, but this was the first time the daily tally of new cases was less than 50 since 909 were reported on Feb. 29.
In February, South Korea uncovered what was believed to be the biggest outbreak outside of China. But a programme of mass testing and contact tracing helped contain the virus, which has spread far more quickly in other countries.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, held a 25-minute phone call with President Moon Jae-in, praising South Korea's leadership in containing the virus, Moon's presidential Blue House said.
Moon said in the call that South Korea was "willing to actively support other countries with prevention skills and supplies as the circumstances permit". Moon said he recently had phone calls with about 20 global leaders.
Tedros proposed that Moon help support sub-Saharan African countries with virus-related supplies including test kits, the Blue House said.
Despite the encouraging evidence in South Korea, officials have urged even greater vigilance, saying a large epidemic could re-emerge at any time, with smaller outbreaks appearing in churches, hospitals and nursing homes, as well as among travellers returning from abroad.
"We are taking great caution against any optimistic expectations with this one-off figure," Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a regular briefing.
BREAKING OUT OF ISOLATION
On Saturday, the government extended its intensive social distancing campaign by two weeks, citing the sustained small clusters of infections.
South Koreans had refrained from socialising in February when the number of cases rose exponentially but more people started going out recently as the weather became warmer and people became weary of the isolation, Kim said.
The movement of people spiked about 20% over the weekend compared with the end of February, he said, citing data from the state-run statistics agency and SK Telecom, the country's largest mobile operator.
Starting on Sunday, the government toughened penalties for those who violate self-quarantine rules to up to 10 million won ($8,100) in fines or one year in prison from 3 million won ($2,400) in fines.
Authorities have reported several cases of quarantine rules being broken over the past few days. The Gunpo city government south of Seoul said on Sunday it has filed a complaint with police against a couple in their 50s and their children who broke away from isolation and went out even after testing positive for the virus.
A Korean student living in the United States sparked public uproar after taking a fever remedy before flying home late last month. The student was found to have contracted the virus, putting some 20 other people who took the same flight in self quarantine.
"We cannot maintain social distancing forever," Kim said. "But it is the most effective measure to help protect others and yourself."
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joori Roh; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel and Peter Graff)