(ATTN: ADDS official's remarks, details in paras 4, 7, 10-15)
SEOUL, March 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea recorded daily new infections of the new coronavirus in the double digits for the third straight day on Tuesday, but the daily tally in Seoul and its neighboring areas surpassed that in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, the two epicenters of the fast-spreading virus.
The 84 new cases, which were detected on Monday and followed 74 new cases detected on Sunday and 76 new cases last Saturday, brought the nation's total infections to 8,320, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.
Of the 84 new cases, 32 are in Daegu and five are in North Gyeongsang, the KCDC said. The total number of confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the two hardest-hit regions, stood at 6,098 and 1,169, respectively.
Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul and Incheon, saw their new daily infections rise by 44 to 558 on Monday.
It was the first time that a daily tally in the capital area surpassed that in Daegu and North Gyeongsang as health authorities scramble to halt cluster infections across the nation.
So far, 81 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 70.4 percent of deaths were of people in their 70s and above as of Monday. Another 19.8 percent of fatalities were of those in their 60s. No death from a virus patient younger than 29 has been reported.
About 61 percent of confirmed cases have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, which has a population of 2.5 million and is the country's fourth-largest city.
The pace of daily new infections has shown marked signs of slowing since the second week of this month as health authorities completed extensive testing of 210,000 Shincheonji followers at the center of the rapid spread, but the 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.
Other major provinces and cities have also reported some infections, with Seoul reporting 12 additional cases. The total number of imported virus cases rose by two to six.
Three more people who are tied to a Christian church in Seongnam, south of Seoul, tested positive for the virus on Tuesday morning, raising the total number of infections at the River of Grace Community Church to 49, local officials said.
Starting Thursday, all people coming from abroad to South Korea will be subject to "special entrance procedures," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip told reporters.
Kim said the government needs "in-depth discussions" before making a decision on whether to ban all religious gatherings.
Unlike other nations, which ban travel to virus-hit nations or put all people visiting virus-hit nations under mandatory two-week quarantine, South Korea has not implemented such draconian measures, except for foreigners who traveled to China's virus outbreak epicenter of Hubei province.
Instead, South Korea has tightened its immigration procedures, requiring international travelers to get fever checks and submit papers on their health conditions. 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, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands.
With unknown virus sufferers who have not developed symptoms apparently causing significant numbers of infections, 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.
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 the 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.
South Korea has released a total of 1,401 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Monday, up 264 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.
The number of daily cured people exceeded the number of daily new infections in South Korea last week for the first time since Jan. 20, when the virus was first detected on South Korean soil.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 17,291 as of Monday, up 2,320 from the day before, the KCDC said. The country has tested a total of 286,716 suspected cases, with 261,105 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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