(ATTN: CHANGES lead; UPDATES with more details in paras 2-5, 14)
SEOUL, Feb. 19 (Yonhap) -- South Korea confirmed 20 more cases of the novel coronavirus Wednesday, bringing the total number of infections here to 51, with most new patients traced to church services, stoking concerns that the country may identify more virus patients despite tighter quarantine measures.
According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), 18 of the new patients are in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and in the adjacent North Gyeongsang region.
The country's 31st patient, probably a coronavirus "super spreader," is believed to have infected at least 15 others and came in contact with 166 people. The 61-year-old woman, a Daegu resident, started to complain of a fever on Feb. 10 and was confirmed to be infected Tuesday.
A preliminary epidemiological investigation shows that the potential super spreader attended several of the same church services as the other newly confirmed patients and had direct contact with one person at a Daegu hospital.
The health authorities said they plan to conduct COVID-19 tests on those who attended services along with the patient as a precautionary measure.
The patient also visited Seoul late last month and went about her everyday life, using public transportation among other things, adding to concerns that she might have infected others.
What constitutes a super spreader is not clearly defined, but people can be labeled as such if they transmit the disease to more than 10 others.
Health authorities said there is a growing risk of COVID-19 spreading in the community, and they respond to the latest cases without links to existing spreading in South Korea, China or other countries, and contain further spread.
The spike in infections is a grave development, but it is still too early to say that the situation is turning into a full-blown outbreak, authorities said, vowing to go all-out to prevent further spreading.
They said that more stringent measures, including the raising of the infectious disease alert status from the current "orange" to the highest level "red" will be decided after the latest cases are investigated. A red alert means that widespread infection is taking place in society.
The health authorities said that two other cases are reported in Seoul. The 11-year-old daughter of the country's 20th patient, who was confirmed to be infected on Feb. 5, also tested positive for the illness, becoming the country's youngest patient to be infected with COVID-19.
A 77-year-old man has also been diagnosed with the virus, according to the KCDC. He has not traveled abroad.
All newly infected people have been placed in quarantine and are undergoing treatment.
So far, at least four people, including the 77-year-old man, have tested positive for the virus without links to known clusters of COVID-19.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 1,149 as of late Wednesday, up from 1,030 earlier in the day, the KCDC said. South Korea has screened 11,173 people for COVID-19 since Jan. 3, with 9,973 testing negative and 16 people having been discharged from quarantine after making full recoveries.
The KCDC said Tuesday that the country is entering a "new phase" with some confirmed cases not linked to existing spreads, 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 not clear how some recent patients contracted the virus.
KCDC director Jung Eun-kyeong said in a press conference on Tuesday that 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.
Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo told the National Assembly earlier that health authorities have been 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 health authorities said that the number of virus-screening stations across the country stands at 464, with efforts under way to make 5,000 coronavirus tests available per day, enabling infected people to be better identified so they cannot spread the virus to others.
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