(ATTN: UPDATES death toll in 4th para; ADDS 5th para with more info)
SEOUL, March 5 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's coronavirus caseload rose above 6,000 on Thursday, with most new virus infections still identified in the southeastern city of Daegu, the epicenter of the virus outbreak here. A third virus-stricken area near Daegu was designated as a "special care zone."
The 322 new cases, which were identified over the past 16 hours on Thursday, brought the nation's total number of infections to 6,088, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.
Thursday's additional cases followed the 438 new cases detected on Wednesday, the 516 new cases on Tuesday and the 600 on Monday.
So far, 41 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, have died in South Korea from the respiratory virus that emerged in China late last year, according to the KCDC and local governments.
The fatalities have surpassed the country's death toll of 39 recorded for the 2015 MERS outbreak. South Korea reported 186 confirmed MERS cases.
About 60 percent of confirmed cases have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million.
However, health authorities have shifted their focus to testing ordinary citizens in Daegu, citing an alarming level of community spread in the city.
Of the 438 new cases detected on Wednesday, 321 are in Daegu and 87 in neighboring North Gyeongsang Province, the two epicenters of the virus outbreak here, the KCDC said.
The total confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang stood at 4,327 and 861, respectively.
Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip told reporters that the government had designated the southeastern city of Gyeongsan, which is adjacent to both Daegu and Cheongdo County, as the nation's third "special care zone" over virus infections.
Along with Daegu, Cheongdo, where a total of 116 infections have been identified so far, was designated as such a zone on Feb. 21. The central government provides more medical resources and staff to these zones.
Gyeongsan in North Gyeongsang has reported a total of 229 confirmed cases, Kim said.
Fears of a coronavirus pandemic, meaning the virus spreading across the world via local spread, are growing, with Italy and Iran reporting hundreds of new confirmed cases.
The government has allowed hospitals and pharmacies to check whether people have traveled to Italy and Iran, Kim said.
Kim voiced cautious optimism that the pace of new infections may slow in coming days as tests on Shincheonji followers who have shown symptoms have been completed.
In a fresh precautionary measure, the government extended child care center breaks by another two weeks to March 22, Kim said. Spring semesters of all elementary, middle and high schools have already been delayed to March 23.
Aside from Daegu and North Gyeongsang, cases of community spread with unknown origins, mostly cluster and sporadic outbreaks, are gradually on the rise. Seoul's confirmed cases rose by four to 103, with 14 cases linked to Eunpyeong St. Mary's Hospital in Eunpyeong Ward. Another 13 cases in Seoul came from an apartment building in Seongdong Ward.
In the central cities of Cheonan and Asan, 55 of the total 87 patients attended a Zumba dance class in Cheonan, officials said.
The latest mass infection was reported at a sanitarium in North Gyeongsang Province. A total of 34 people at the facility were confirmed to have been infected. The other 82 people at the institute are undergoing virus test.
KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook told reporters that clusters of infections accounted for 69.4 percent of total confirmed cases as of Thursday, up 3.8 percentage points from a day ago.
More cases are expected to be confirmed as mass infections, as an epidemiological survey of the remaining cases is under way, Kwon said.
Kwon renewed calls for people to refrain from going outside or attending gatherings and to work from home, while strictly following standard precautions such as hand washing and coughing etiquette.
Since raising the virus alert level to "red," the highest level, on Feb. 23, health authorities have focused on halting the spread of the virus in Daegu and North Gyeongsang.
In some positive news, South Korea released 47 fully recovered coronavirus patients on Wednesday, marking the biggest number of cured virus patients on a daily basis, the KCDC said.
So far, South Korea has released 88 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Wednesday, the KCDC said.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 21,810 as of Wednesday, down 6,604 from the day before, it added. The country has tested a total of 140,775 suspected cases, with 118,965 testing negative.
Currently, there is no evidence that the new coronavirus is airborne. The World Health Organization said the virus is transmitted through droplets or close contact. The best measures to protect yourself from the virus are to wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds and avoid mass gatherings, health officials said.
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