(ATTN: UPDATES death toll in para 4, details on call center in para 15)
SEOUL, March 11 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported an uptick in new daily coronavirus cases Wednesday, reversing five straight days of fewer new cases, as the country grapples with clusters of infections in Seoul and neighboring areas.
The 242 new cases, which were detected Tuesday, brought the nation's total number of infections to 7,755, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
Still, Tuesday's additional cases were far below the daily increases of 500 or more last week but higher than the 131 new cases detected Monday.
A total of 66 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, had died from the virus as of late Wednesday, according to the KCDC and local health authorities. The flu-like virus causes a fever, cough, runny nose or headache for most healthy people, but the risk of severe infection is high for elderly people with underlying health problems.
About 61 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 had shown signs of slowing in recent days as health authorities 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, including a call center in Seoul's Guro district.
Of the 242 new cases, which were detected on Tuesday, 131 are in Daegu and 18 are in North Gyeongsang, the KCDC said. The total number of confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the two epicenters of the virus outbreak here, stood at 5,794 and 1,135, respectively.
While Daegu and North Gyeongsang still account for the majority of daily new infections, clusters of infections in Seoul and neighboring areas are feared to rise further.
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 jumped by 52 to 193, with at least 65 cases linked to a call center in Guro Ward and another 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.
Incheon's cases rose by 12 to 25, with 14 cases linked to the Guro call center. Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul and Incheon, saw confirmed cases climb by 12 to 175, with 26 cases tied to Shincheonji and 13 cases tied to the Guro call center.
Virus cases in Busan rose by two to 98, 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, 99 of the total 112 patients were tied to a Zumba dance class in Cheonan, the KCDC said.
Clusters of infections account for 80.1 percent of the total confirmed cases.
In the largest cluster of infections in Seoul and its neighboring areas so far, a total of 99 people linked to a call center for an insurance firm in southern Seoul had tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday, according to Mayor Park Won-soon, highlighting concerns about the virus' spread in confined spaces.
Like other clusters, it is unknown where the virus started at the call center.
The first call center worker tested positive for the virus Sunday, but the virus might have spread unwittingly at the center since late last month, according to experts.
The 19-story building in Shindorim Neighborhood in Guro Ward was shut down and disinfection work began on Monday.
Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official who is in charge of quarantine work, said in a daily briefing that if workers show symptoms at confined workplaces, they should be allowed to work from home or take a leave.
Internet cafes, karaoke rooms and fitness centers, along with call centers, are confined spaces where the virus can easily spread, Yoon said.
The government plans to require such facilities to beef up containment measures, Yoon said.
To cope with an increase in confirmed cases in Seoul and its neighboring areas, the authorities will ask local governments to set up isolation facilities there, Yoon said.
Because it is increasingly difficult to trace people who came into contact with confirmed carriers who have taken buses or subways, companies need to adjust commuting times, Yoon said.
In Sejong, the country's administrative city, three more public servants working at the main government complex have been infected with the new coronavirus, sparking concerns over a potential cluster infection at the facility that houses 15,000 people.
Another member of the oceans ministry was also infected with the virus a day earlier. The four worked at the same department.
The Sejong government complex accommodates 35 government ministries and agencies.
Last week, a public servant working at the health ministry in Sejong was also infected with COVID-19.
The virus is spreading around the world, with confirmed cases in Italy and Iran topping 10,000 and 8,000, respectively. China's cases stand at more than 80,000.
Starting Thursday, all people who arrive in South Korea after visiting Italy and Iran will be required to get fever checks and submit papers on their health conditions, officials said. Such requirements have been applied to people who have visited mainland China, Macau and Hong Kong.
Imported cases of the new coronavirus have been reported in South Korea, with a 24-year-old man who arrived here after visiting Italy last week testing positive for the virus Tuesday.
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.
South Korea had released a total of 288 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Tuesday, up 41 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 18,540 as of Tuesday, up 88 from the day before, it said. The country has tested a total of 214,640 suspected cases, with 196,100 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.
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