(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 2, 7-11)
SEOUL, March 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Sunday said the country's novel coronavirus cases are likely to keep rising through early March as local health authorities vowed to beef up the anti-virus fight, focusing on a minor religious sect that has been at the center of the outbreak here.
South Korea reported another daily spike of new coronavirus infections, with 586 additional cases bringing the total here to 3,736 as of 4 p.m.
The country confirmed its first new coronavirus case on Jan. 20 when a Chinese woman from Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus outbreak, tested positive for the virus.
So far, 18 virus patients have died from COVID-19, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). The latest victim of the virus was an 83-year-old man in the southeastern city of Daegu who also had underlying diseases, including suffering from a stroke and hypertension, according to the KCDC.
Of the 586 new cases, 469 are in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and 67 were reported in neighboring North Gyeongsang Province, according to the KCDC.
Other major provinces and cities have also reported some infections, with Seoul reporting an additional 10 cases. South Korea's second-largest city, Busan, added three more cases.
During a regular briefing, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said that the country has seen a slower spread of the coronavirus across the nation, but the chance of it spreading further remains.
"Contrary to earlier concerns, the speed of COVID-19 of spreading into other parts of the country beyond Daegu has been reduced," Park said.
Pointing to cases that have occurred nationwide, however, he said, "The possibility of the nationwide spread of the infection remains. We believe the coming one to two weeks will be a watershed moment."
In order to prevent a high death toll in the face of a spike in the number of patients and subsequent shortage of hospital beds, the government said it will categorize the patients into four groups in line with conditions and provide care accordingly.
"Instead of hospitalizing all patients, we will put the focus on treating serious cases," Park said, adding that those with mild symptoms will be cared for at designated local clinics.
Since raising the virus alert level to "red," the highest level, last Sunday, health authorities have been focusing on halting the spread of the virus in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, as those locations account for more than 87 percent of the country's total virus infections. Daegu alone has 2,705 virus patients in the city, KCDC data showed.
The number of confirmed cases in South Korea is expected to jump in the coming days as the authorities have begun testing more than 210,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus at the center of the rapid spread in other provinces.
The members of the minor religious sect took up more than half of the country's total virus cases as of Sunday.
In particular, the KCDC said about 73 percent of all virus patients in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city that has a population of 2.5 million, are connected to the Shincheonji church.
Health authorities said on Friday that 3,000 Shincheonji followers in the country had symptoms of the novel coronavirus.
The KCDC said it has learned that some of the Shincheonji church members visited Wuhan, China, in January but did not reveal how many had been to the international epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak.
The Ministry of Justice said Saturday that 42 followers of the Shincheonji church are presumed to have entered the country from Wuhan over the past eight months.
"We know that Feb. 16 was the last day that this group had made massive contact with others," said Kwon Jun-wook, a Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) official, at a press briefing. "One cycle of the virus incubation period has passed since, and we may have to deal with secondary virus infections through early March."
Kwon added that health authorities will reinforce the monitoring of facilities that could cause mass infections, such as medical institutions and schools.
Also on Sunday, health authorities announced that a 45-day-old baby has been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, making the baby boy the youngest patient in South Korea. The baby, born on Jan. 15, tested positive for COVID-19 after his parents had contracted the virus, they said.
South Korea is carrying out tests on 33,360 people nationwide, while 61,825 people have tested negative in total.
The KCDC said it is currently working to secure coronavirus testing reagents after Swiss drugmaker Roche recently decided to supply more of its diagnostic reagent to China.
Health authorities said 14 patients are in critical condition. The number of patients cured of the disease stands at 30.
Meanwhile, as the number of virus cases soars here, many foreign countries have barred entry by those who have recently visited South Korea.
Earlier, the U.S. State Department raised its travel advisory for Daegu to the highest level, urging Americans not to travel to the virus-hit city. For the rest of South Korea, the U.S. advised its nationals to reconsider travel.
According to Seoul's foreign ministry, 78 countries have so far moved to bar the entry of people traveling from South Korea or to strengthen quarantine steps.
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