SEOUL, March 20 (UPI) -- As its rate of new COVID-19 patients continued to slow on Friday, South Korea announced it would begin quarantining travelers from Europe in an effort to contain imported cases.
Starting on Sunday, all travelers coming from Europe will be tested for the coronavirus, Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press briefing on Friday afternoon. Anyone who tests positive will be sent immediately to a hospital or treatment center. Those who test negative will still be subject to a 14-day quarantine.
"Recently we have been seeing a surge in the outbreak within Europe, including countries such as Italy, the U.K., Spain and France, and we have identified through immigration quarantine an increase in imported cases," she said.
Travelers from Europe with a residence in South Korea will be able to self-quarantine at home, while others will be sent to a separate facility. Visitors on a short-term stay will have their health checked daily over the phone.
The increased restrictions came a day after South Korea announced tighter screening measures for people coming from abroad. There are a total of 86 imported coronavirus cases in the country, with 50 coming from visitors from Europe, according to Korea's CDC.
South Korea announced 87 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, bringing its total number of infections to 8,652. The increase was the seventh time in the last eight days that the number of new patients has been below 100, a sharp drop from previous weeks as the country appears to be flattening the curve for the spread of the disease.
Health authorities took an early and aggressive approach of testing, tracking and treating patients. The country is conducting around 15,000 tests a day and has administered over 316,000 tests overall as of Friday.
More than 86 percent of COVID-19 cases are based in the southeastern city of Daegu and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province, with nearly 59 percent of the overall cases tied to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect that was at the heart of the outbreak in South Korea.
"We are seeing a slight decrease among the members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, although we are seeing an increase of sporadic outbreaks, and we also see that we have a risk of imported diseases," Jung said. "We have also recently seen an increase in outbreaks among multi-use facilities like churches, nursing homes and welfare facilities."
Officials have been concerned by cluster outbreaks around the Seoul metropolitan region, a densely packed urban area home to some 25 million people. A call center in southwestern Seoul and the River of Grace Church in neighboring Gyeonggi Province have been the sites of group transmissions over the past two weeks.
Seoul's confirmed cases rose by 17 to 299 on Friday, with at least 91 cases linked to the call center and several others connected to an Internet cafe. Gyeonggi Province added 14 cases to rise to 309 overall, with 60 connected to the River of Grace Church.
South Korea's coronavirus fatality rate remains relatively low, with 94 deaths as of Friday for a rate of 1.09 percent, while the country has released 2,233 fully recovered patients so far.