(ATTN: ADDS more quarantine measures in paras 15-16)
SEOUL, Feb. 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's public health authorities warned Tuesday that the country should prepare for more coronavirus infections not linked to known clusters as its latest confirmed cases are believed to be without links to other existing cases or to China and overseas countries.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said the country is entering a "new phase" with some confirmed cases not being linked to existing spreads or clusters, which means that those patients are judged to have contracted the COVID-19 virus without traveling abroad or coming into contact with other infected patients.
The public health agency admitted that it is still unclear how the three latest virus patients -- the country's 29th, 30th, and 31st -- contracted the virus as they had not had contact with other confirmed patients or been abroad recently.
"The three patients' infection routes are uncertain ... and there is a chance of additional similar cases being found," KCDC director Jung Eun-kyeong said in a press conference.
The country needs to tighten quarantine controls over arrivals from abroad and self-quarantine rules, while coming up with countermeasures to prevent community spread, she said.
However, she flatly dismissed concerns that citizens are actually exposed to the virus.
"Those most at risk are people who have been to China, followed by people who have come into contact with them," the official said.
The KCDC will make certain people at the greatest risk are not bypassed in the screening process.
Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo told lawmakers that health authorities are dealing with the current situation calmly and preparing for the possibility of community spread.
"The seeming lull in new confirmed cases last week can be seen as a transition period leading to a 'second peak' stage," the minister said.
The latest cases raised concerns over the spread of the disease without a link to known clusters of the COVID-19 virus and marks the first time that a virus patient has been reported in the southwestern Gyeongsang region of the country.
The country's 31st patient, a 61-year-old South Korean woman who lives in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, started to complain of fever on Feb. 10 and was tested Monday at a local health center after which she was sent to a hospital and placed in quarantine for treatment and monitoring.
The KCDC said it is tracing the patients' steps and working to find out how they contracted the illness.
The health authorities said she visited Seoul late last month, was treated at a Daegu hospital after a car accident and went about her everyday life in which she used public transportation.
Later in the day, the places where the patient had visited, as well as those in their vicinity, were closed, and people working there were put into in self-quarantine. The hospital transferred 33 remaining inpatients to a nearby medical center, and authorities have been looking into possible contamination of other facilities within the hospital, according to officials.
A public health center, a hotel restaurant and a church where the 31st patient visited were also shut down and sterilized.
Most of the previous cases here have been centered in and around Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, with a few confirmed cases reported in Gwangju and the Jeolla region in the southeastern part of the country.
Of all cases reported here, 12 were those who visited Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the current outbreak, with five others who made trips to Singapore, Thailand and Japan. The remaining 14 are presumed to be person-to-person transmission cases in the country.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 818 as of Tuesday afternoon, down from 957 earlier in the day, the KCDC said.
South Korea has screened 9,772 people for COVID-19 since Jan. 3, with 8,923 testing negative. The country also has discharged a total of 12 patients from quarantine after they fully recovered.
The country said the 12th and 14th patients, who are a Chinese couple, had been treated at a hospital south of Seoul and discharged after they tested negative for COVID-19 twice in the last 24 hours.
The 12th patient is a 48-year-old man who was confirmed to have been infected on Feb. 1, while the 14th patient is a 40-year-old woman who tested positive on Feb. 2.
The KCDC said other virus patients are in stable condition, according to the KCDC.
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