(ATTN: ADDS 1st photo, health minister's comments in paras 4, 7-9)
SEOUL, March 8 (Yonhap) -- The number of new coronavirus infections in South Korea continued to rise, with an additional 179 cases confirmed Sunday, bringing the total to 7,313.
The number of newly added confirmed cases is lower than 367 additional cases of COVID-19 released on Saturday, the slowest on-day gain since Feb. 26, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
It marked the first time in 11 days the number of new infections fell to below 400, possibly offering signs of containment.
In a press briefing held on Sunday afternoon, Health and Welfare Minister Park Neunghoo said South Korea's quarantine systems are working effectively to contain the spread of the new coronavirus and will become an exemplary case for other countries if the country successfully copes with the current crisis.
The additional 179 cases were confirmed over past 16 hours. Tallies for the entire day are made available the following day.
A majority of the new cases again came from the southeastern city of Daegu and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province, the two epicenters of the virus outbreak that together account for more than 90 percent of all infection cases.
"The spreading pace of the respiratory illness in Daegu and the North Gyeongsang Province appears to be at an initial stage of slowing down," the minister said.
He said the country is capable of checking up to 17,000 people per day for the coronavirus and has tested a total of 190,000 people.
The government will increase the number of treatment facilities for the COVID-19 patients across the country to accommodate up to 4,000. As of Sunday, there are 10 treatment facilities that can accommodate 2,500 coronavirus patients, the ministry said.
Of the 367 new cases detected Saturday, 297 cases came from Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city with a population of about 2.5 million that is located some 300 kilometers from Seoul.
About 60 percent of confirmed cases here have been linked to a Daegu branch of a religious sect, Shincheonji.
The total number of infection cases in Daegu now stands at 5,381.
Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said the number of new cases may indicate a slowdown in the spread of the virus, noting the number of new cases in the city has dropped to below 300 for the first time since Feb. 29.
"The increase in the number of infection cases is showing signs of slowing down," he told a press briefing.
North Gyeongsang Province, one of the most severely hit areas, saw its infection cases rise 32 to 1,081, according to the KCDC.
But KCDC Director-General Jeong Eun-kyeong said it may be too soon to say that the spread of the virus could be on the wane, noting the recent decline in the number of new cases was largely because of a drop in the number of cases linked to the Sincheonji church in Daegu.
"The number of new patients is dwindling with the tests on the followers of the Shincheonji church nearly coming to an end," she told a press briefing.
The number of infections traced to the religious sect is tallied at 4,482, accounting for 62.8 percent of the total cases here.
Jeong noted the rise in the number of virus patients could quickly accelerate if there is a new cluster of infection cases, which she said is still very much possible.
"We believe a fresh outbreak could be possible at any time in case the virus is exposed at group facilities or religious events because it is highly contagious," said Jeong, adding that 79.4 percent of all infections here have been linked to clusters of mass infection cases.
Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi Province reported 12 and 11 additional cases, respectively. Their totals now stand at 120 and 141, respectively.
South Korea raised its virus alert level to the highest on Feb. 23, enabling all-out quarantine measures by the health authorities as well as district governments.
A virus-hit apartment in Daegu has been under lockdown as one-third of its residents were confirmed to have contracted the illness.
The patients at the apartment complex were followers of the Shincheonji church.
The provincial government of North Gyeongsang Province said more than 580 facilities or houses in its own districts have been placed under such lockdowns.
So far, 50 people, mostly with preexisting medical conditions, have died of the respiratory disease that originated in China late last year.
South Korea reported its first COVID-19 case on Jan. 20.
Earlier, an official from the health ministry was diagnosed with the coronavirus, leading to a temporary shutdown of the whole operation of at least the ministry office the patient worked at.
The ministry said on Sunday that 51 other officials from the same office have tested negative.
Still, at least 27 of those who had come in close contact with the patient have been told to take self-quarantine measures, it added.
The KCDC said the number of patients released from hospitals after recovering from the viral disease came to 130 as of Sunday, up 12 from the previous day.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 19,376 as of Sunday, down 244 from the day before, the KCDC said. The country has tested a total of 181,384 suspected cases, with 162,008 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. One of the best ways to avoid contracting the virus is to wash one's hands with soap for at least 20 seconds and avoid mass gatherings, health officials said.
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