(ATTN: ADDS official's remarks in paras 15-19, photo)
SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's coronavirus caseload approached 7,400 on Monday, but the pace of new infections slowed after massive testings on members of a religious sect at the center of rapid spreading were completed. Still, health authorities remained on high alert over new clusters of infections.
The 248 new cases, which were detected on Sunday, brought the nation's total number of infections to 7,382, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
Sunday's additional cases, which were also far below the daily increases of some 500 last week and marked the lowest daily number since Feb. 26, followed the 367 new cases detected last Saturday, 438 new cases last Friday and 518 new cases last Thursday.
So far, 51 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, have died in South Korea from the respiratory virus that emerged in China late last year, the KCDC said.
About 60 percent of confirmed cases have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, which, with a population of 2.5 million, is the country's fourth-largest city.
The pace of daily new inflections has shown signs of slowing down in recent days as health authorities have completed extensive testing of 210,000 Shincheonji followers who are at the center of the rapid spread, but authorities are still on high alert over new clusters of infections.
Of the 248 new cases, which were detected on Sunday, 190 are in Daegu and 26 are in North Gyeongsang, the KCDC said. The total number of infections in Daegu and North Gyeongsang stood at 5,571 and 1,107, respectively.
With Daegu and North Gyeongsang still accounting for some 90 percent of daily new infections, other major provinces and cities have also reported some infections.
Seoul's virus caseload rose by 10 to 130, and Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul, saw its confirmed cases climb by 11 to 152. New cases were detected in other cities, including Daejeon, Gwangju and Sejong.
Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a daily briefing that the spread of COVID-19 is showing signs of a slowdown, but the number of sporadic cases outside Daegu and North Gyeongsang is growing.
"It's a time when we should focus on making all-out efforts to decrease the number of new infections," Kim said.
Kim also warned against cases of the new coronavirus coming from abroad as global virus cases topped 110,000.
A 24-year-old Korean man tested positive for the virus on Sunday after he recently traveled to Italy, which has become the most virus-affected country after China.
South Korea will continue to step up efforts to halt the local transmission of the virus, while containing the importation of infections, Kim said.
More than 15 million people in Italy, including those in Venice and financial hub Milan, were put under lockdown as the spread of the virus worsened.
The Korean government has no plans to bring its citizens back to Korea via a charter plane because of Italy's advanced medical system, Kim said.
Kim also expressed concerns over Japan's relatively hands-off approach to combating the virus, with media reports saying that the number of infections in Japan could be higher than reported.
"As for Japan, it is worrisome because aggressive identification of patients is insufficient there," Kim said, adding that there is a risk of local transmission in Japan.
Kim said the government will expand its entry bans from virus-hit nations if the global situation worsens.
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.
After the first outbreak on Jan. 20 in South Korea, the pace of infections had not been alarming until Feb. 18, when a 61-year-old woman who is tied to the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji sect tested positive for the virus.
Since then, the nation has seen an explosion in infections as it has accelerated virus tests on potential cases.
Health authorities have yet to find the "index cases," or people among the sect's followers who triggered mass infections among Shincheonji followers.
In a clue that could explain why infections spread widely among Shincheonji followers, 46 virus patients were confirmed at an apartment building in Daegu. Out of 140 residents of the building, all 46 patients are Shincheonji followers, and some of them had lived in the same homes. The building has been under a lockdown since last Saturday.
South Korea has released 166 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Sunday, up 36 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 17,458 as of Sunday, down 1,918 from the day before, it said. The country has tested a total of 189,236 suspected cases, with 171,778 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.
Meanwhile, South Korea began a rationing system for face masks on Monday. Despite the government's quarantine efforts, demand for face masks far surpasses supply, drawing complaints from people who have been waiting in long lines for hours to buy masks provided via public channels.
Under the new measure that will take effect Monday, citizens will be able to buy only two protective masks per week from pharmacies, on designated days of the week, depending on the final number of their year of birth.
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