SEOUL, May 18 (UPI) -- A COVID-19 outbreak that began in crowded Seoul nightclubs and bars appears to be coming under control, health authorities said Monday, as newly confirmed cases fell to single digits after a vigorous cycle of testing and tracing of those who may have been exposed.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced 15 new COVID-19 patients Monday morning, with just two of the cases connected to the nightclub outbreak. Ten were imported from overseas arrivals.
On Monday afternoon, another two club-related cases were announced, bringing the total to 170 infections that can be traced back to a spread that began earlier this month when a 29-year-old clubgoer tested positive for COVID-19 after having visited five bars and nightclubs in the Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon, potentially exposing thousands.
The affected venues cater to an LGBT audience, which had led to concern that visitors would hesitate to come forward for testing. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community continues to face discrimination in South Korea and a backlash against the clubgoers had emerged online and on social media.
However, the government began offering anonymous testing to encourage potentially exposed people to come forward while conducting extensive tracing using interviews and club records, as well as CCTV, cellphone and credit card data.
More than 65,000 tests connected to the Itaewon clubs have been conducted so far, according to health officials.
Officials said Monday that while the virus still has the potential to spread quickly, the outbreak was under control and that they would not roll back the loosened social distancing guidelines they introduced earlier this month.
"It is difficult for us to extinguish the virus, but it is possible for us to control and manage COVID-19," KCDC Director Jung Eun-kyeong said at a press briefing on Monday. "So this containment measure is the role we have taken."
Jung also said Monday that patients who retested positive for the coronavirus after recovering from the illness do not appear to be infectious.
"There was no result or evidence to show that those who have tested positive again are infectious," she said.
The country has reported 447 relapse cases and Jung said that none of them had transmitted the virus to others.
Infectious disease experts in South Korea suggested last month that the second positive cases were likely not due to the virus reactivating but rather were caused by fragments of dead virus cells being picked up by the tests.
Along with maintaining relaxed social distancing guidelines that will allow for increased social and economic activities, authorities are also pushing ahead with plans to bring students back to school.
Students in South Korea were scheduled to begin returning to classrooms last week, but the nightclub outbreak caused a delay.
However, with the cluster infection under control, high school seniors are on track to begin classes on Wednesday, with other grades following over the coming weeks in a phased process, officials confirmed on Monday.
Overall, the number of confirmed cases in South Korea rose to 11,065, while the death toll increased by one to 263.