(ATTN: UPDATES with latest toll in 4th para)
SEOUL, March 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's coronavirus caseload approached 6,600 on Friday, with most new virus infections still occurring in the southeastern city of Daegu, the epicenter of the virus outbreak here, and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province. Another alarming cluster of infections was reported in a small city near Daegu.
The 309 new cases, which were identified over the past 16 hours on Friday, brought the nation's total number of infections to 6,593, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.
Friday's additional cases followed the 518 new cases detected on Thursday, the 438 new cases on Wednesday, the 516 new cases on Tuesday and the 600 new cases on Monday.
So far, 44 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.
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 518 new cases, which were detected on Thursday, 367 are in Daegu and 123 in North Gyeongsang, the KCDC said.
The total confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang stood at 4,694 and 984, respectively.
Other major provinces and cities have also reported infections. Gyeonggi Province saw its confirmed cases rise by 10 to 120. Three patients and five medical staff at Bundang Jaesaeng General Hospital, south of Seoul, tested positive for the virus after they came into contact with a 77-year-old cancer patient who was admitted to the hospital last Sunday and tested positive for the virus on Thursday.
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.
Another alarming cluster of infections was reported in the southeastern city of Gyeongsan, which is adjacent to both Daegu and its neighboring Cheongdo County.
Of the 123 new cases detected on Thursday in North Gyeongsang Province -- which surrounds Daegu, Cheongdo and Gyeongsan -- 56 cases came from Gyeongsan, including 46 cases at a nursing home in Bonghwa County, Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip told reporters.
Health authorities are "closely watching the situation in Gyeongsan," Kim said.
On Thursday, the government designated Gyeongsan 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 282 confirmed cases, with more than 60 percent of cases being related to Shincheonji followers.
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 105, 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.
Virus cases in Busan rose by three to 95, with 33 patients linked to a Christian church in the Dongnae district and another nine patients linked to Shincheonji. The 33 patients of the Oncheon church in Busan are tied to the church's three-day retreat that ended on Feb. 17, officials said. It is still unclear how they were infected with the virus.
In the central cities of Cheonan and Asan, 58 of the total 92 patients were tied to a Zumba dance class last month in Cheonan, officials said.
A total of 765 virus patients with mild or moderate symptoms in Daegu have been admitted to isolation facilities, Kim said, adding that more than 800 patients will be admitted to such facilities next week.
To help deal with the psychological impact on virus patients who were admitted to isolation facilities, the government will provide telephone hotline services for them, Kim said.
Also, the government will give one-month free trials of video streaming service Watcha, a Korean version of Netflix, to such patients, Kim said.
Kim said it is "too early to say" about the prospects of the fast-spreading virus, renewing calls for people to refrain from going outside or attending religious gatherings over the weekend.
KCDC Director-General Jeong Eun-kyeong said clusters of infections accounted for 71.7 percent of total confirmed cases as of Friday, up 2.3 percentage points from a day earlier.
A growing number of newly confirmed cases have come from infections at internet cafes or karaoke rooms, Jeong said, calling for such facilities to step up containment measures.
South Korea has not conducted autopsies on patients who died from the new coronavirus, Jeong said, but she noted that postmortem results are necessary to understand how the virus attacks the lungs.
"To more accurately understand this illness, there is a need for an autopsy," Jeong said, adding that it is difficult to get agreement for this from family members.
South Korea had released 108 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Thursday, up 20 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 21,832 as of Thursday, up 22 from the day before, it said. The country has tested a total of 158,456 suspected cases, with 136,624 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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