(ATTN: UPDATES with more details on infection tally in para 4, lifting of cohort isolation in para 33-34)
SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's coronavirus caseload approached 7,500 on Monday, but the pace of new infections slowed after the extensive testing of members of a religious sect at the center of the disease's rapid spread was completed. Still, health authorities remained on high alert over new clusters of infections.
The 96 new cases, which were identified between midnight Sunday and 4 p.m., brought the nation's total number of infections to 7,478, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.
The additional infections followed the 248 new cases detected on Sunday -- also far below the daily increases of 500 or more last week and the lowest daily number since Feb. 26. On Saturday, 367 new cases were identified, 438 were found on Friday and 518 were reported on 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. Three more fatalities have been reported, but they have not been included in an official update. The most recent deaths all involve seniors in their 70s and 80s.
Starting Tuesday, the KCDC said it will announce the daily number of new infections once a day at 10:00 a.m.
Until now, the KCDC has announced tallies twice a day. A morning update is based on the number of new infections detected a day earlier, while an afternoon update is based on the number detected over the first 16 hours of the day.
About 63 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.
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 10 to 130, 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 were unchanged at 96, with 34 patients linked to a Christian church in the Dongnae district and another 11 patients linked to Shincheonji. The 34 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 South Chungcheong Province, which includes the city of Cheonan, 92 of the total 102 patients were tied to a Zumba dance class last month in Cheonan, the KCDC said.
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.
Iran has become another epicenter, with the number of confirmed cases surpassing 6,500 on Sunday. An official at South Korea's foreign ministry said the government plans to bring home citizens via a charter flight from Iran this week.
Among about 220 South Koreans in Iran, some 80 citizens have applied to take the flight, the official 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.
KCDC Director-General Jeong Eun-kyeong told reporters that the number of new daily infections has declined but that, "It's not a situation where (authorities) feel at ease."
Clusters of infections accounted for about 80 percent of total confirmed cases as of Monday, Jeong said.
Most sporadic cases outside Daegu and North Gyeongsang came from people who came into contact with virus patients, Jeong said, adding that authorities will focus on preventing the virus from spreading into hospitals, nursing homes and religious facilities.
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 confirmed cases are members of Shincheonji, with some of them having lived in the same homes.
The building has been under lockdown since last Saturday, although authorities lifted the cohort isolation late Monday after the infected were moved to a community treatment facility. The 38 residents who are not affiliated with the church and have not been infected have been released from quarantine, although 48 Shincheonji churchgoers who tested negative for infection will have to remain in self isolation for the time being.
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 went into effect Monday, citizens are 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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