(ATTN: CHANGES with updated info in paras 5, 8, 16, 19)
SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported 142 new cases of the new coronavirus on Saturday, the largest spike in a single day since its first outbreak in late January, bringing the total number of infections in the nation to 346.
The number of COVID-19 infections here has soared in the past few days, with most infections traced to a hospital in the southeastern county of Cheongdo and a minor Christian sect in the southeastern city of Daegu, which constitute some 80 percent of the total infections here.
Daegu, where the 2.5 million inhabitants have been asked to stay indoors, and neighboring Cheongdo were designated as a "special management zone" on Friday.
Of the 142 new cases, 92 are related to Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, where South Korea's first coronavirus fatality occurred, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.
A 63-year-old man, who died of pneumonia at the hospital on Wednesday, posthumously tested positive for the virus.
On Friday, another patient died from the coronavirus at a hospital in Busan after being transferred from Daenam Hospital, the second death from the virus in South Korea.
The public health agency said 38 new cases are tied to the minor Christian sect known as Sincheonji in Daegu, about 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province and other areas.
So far, a total of 111 virus cases -- nine hospital staff and 102 patients -- have been reported from Daenam Hospital, and so-called cohort isolation, the shutdown of an entire medical institution to prevent the spread of an infectious disease, was in place for the hospital, according to the health authorities.
The health authorities said 169 virus patients have been traced to the Shincheonji church's services in Daegu, according to the KCDC.
The KCDC said it has placed a total of 9,336 Sincheonji members in self-quarantine. Among them, 544 people suspected of having contracted the virus are being tested for the virus.
The country's 31st patient, a probable "super spreader," had attended the church's worship services in Daegu, and the 61-year-old South Korean woman, who tested positive for the virus earlier this week, is believed to have infected others.
But the health authorities said earlier that it is uncertain whether the patient is the source of the cluster outbreak.
The health authorities vowed to make more containment efforts as the potentially fatal illness spreads fast across the country.
The heath ministry said it will allow hospitals to separate respiratory patients from others in an effort to prevent human-to-human transmissions and will also check all pneumonia patients in Daegu hospitals.
Despite the surge in the number of infections here, the authorities said they will maintain the virus alert at the third-highest, or "orange," level, but the virus response will be carried out with an urgency appropriate to the "red" level.
"Community spread of infections began in some limited areas, and we believe that Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province are in a special situation," Vice Health and Welfare Minister Kim Kang-lip told reporters on Saturday.
In a sign that the virus may further spread nationwide, other provinces, including Jeju, Chungcheong and North Jeolla, reported cases. Gyeonggi Province also reported more new cases.
Three new virus cases were reported for the first time in Busan, the country's second-largest city with a population of 3.4 million. The city had been regarded as relatively free of the virus outbreak since the country reported the first case of COVID-19 on Jan. 20.
So far, South Korea has released 18 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals, the KCDC said.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 5,481, up from 3,180 a day earlier, the KCDC said. The country has tested a total of 19,621 suspected cases, with 13,794 testing negative.
Most virus-infected patients are stable, but about nine patients with underlying illnesses are in relatively critical conditions, the health authorities said.
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