(ATTN: ADDS official's remarks, details in para 5, paras 14-20)
SEOUL, March 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea saw another downward trend in daily new infections of the novel coronavirus on Monday, but multiple small-scale cluster infections continued to emerge across the nation, keeping health authorities on edge.
The 74 new cases, which were detected Sunday, brought the nation's total infections to 8,236, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.
Sunday's new cases marked the lowest number of daily infections in more than three weeks, and it was the second straight day that daily new infections fell to a double-digit increase.
So far, 75 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.
In South Korea, the virus has preyed on the elderly and already sick people. The KCDC said 70.6 percent of deaths were in their 70s and above. Another 18.7 percent of fatalities were in their 60s. No death from a virus patient younger than 29 has been reported.
South Korea has released a total of 1,137 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Sunday, up 303 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.
Sunday's number of cured people marked the biggest one-day increase so far. Last week, the number of daily cured people exceeded the number of daily new infections in South Korea for the first time since Jan. 20, when the virus was first detected on South Korean soil.
About 61 percent of confirmed cases have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, which is the country's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million.
The pace of daily new inflections has shown marked signs of slowing since the second week of this month 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 at a call center in Seoul's Guro district and the country's government complex in the administrative city of Sejong.
Of the 74 new cases, 35 are in Daegu and seven 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 6,066 and 1,164, respectively.
Other major provinces and cities have also reported some infections, with Gyeonggi Province reporting 20 additional cases.
A total of 40 people who are tied to a Christian church in Seongnam, south of Seoul, tested positive for the virus on Sunday, raising the total number of infections at the River of Grace Church to 46, local officials said.
With unknown virus patients who have not developed symptoms appearing to cause significant amounts of infection, the government has called for people to avoid non-essential gatherings in crowded places, such as religious facilities, nursing homes, internet cafes and karaoke rooms.
As the spread of the virus shows little signs of a let-up in Europe and the Middle East, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the government would tighten border checks for all travelers from France, Germany, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands.
The stricter immigration procedures require international travelers to get fever checks and submit papers on their health. They are required to download a smartphone app that will allow them to be put under supervision if they show symptoms.
Such requirements have been applied to people who have visited mainland China, Macau, Hong Kong, Iran and Italy.
As the number of imported virus cases grows, South Korea is preparing to expand its stricter border checks to all people coming from abroad, Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip told reporters.
A total of four imported cases of the novel coronavirus in South Korea have been confirmed, including three patients who traveled to European countries and tested positive for the virus last Saturday, Kim said.
Many experts expected the government to extend school breaks another two weeks to early next month.
Kim said, "It is not the stage where we talk about easing of social distancing."
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.
On Sunday, the government designated Daegu and three other hard-hit areas in North Gyeongsang as "special disaster zones," allowing it to subsidize about half of recovery spending and exempt people there from taxes and utility fees.
The World Health Organization declared last week that the global coronavirus crisis is a pandemic as the virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 7,024 as of Sunday, down 229 from the day before, the KCDC said. The country has tested a total of 274,504 suspected cases, with 251,297 testing negative.
Currently, there is no evidence that the new coronavirus is airborne. WHO said the virus is transmitted through droplets or close contact.
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