(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 10, 19-21)
SEOUL, March 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea recorded fewer than 100 new daily virus cases again on Sunday, but health authorities remained on high alert over new cluster infections and imported cases, mainly from Europe.
The 98 new COVID-19 cases, which were detected Saturday, brought the nation's total number of infections to 8,897, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). The daily infection rate had been in the double digits last week, except for the 152 new cases reported on Wednesday and 147 on Friday.
Of the newly confirmed cases, 15 people, or 15.3 percent, tested positive for COVID-19 after overseas trips, the KCDC.
Eight of the imported cases came from Europe, with another five from the United States, the health authorities said.
The KCDC said 80.9 percent of the country's virus infections are considered mass infections, with 19.1 percent categorized as cases of community spread with unknown origins, mostly cluster and sporadic outbreaks.
So far, 104 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, have died in South Korea from the respiratory virus that emerged in China late last year.
One more death was reported in the southeastern city of Daegu but was not added to an official tally.
In South Korea, the virus has mostly preyed on the elderly and already sick people.
The average mortality rate stood at 1.17 percent as of Saturday according to the KCDC. For those age 80 and above, the fatality rate was the highest at 10.46 percent.
The KCDC said a total of 89 COVID-19 patients are in critical condition, with 61 of them at very dangerous status.
About 60 percent of the 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.
But the authorities are still on high alert over new clusters of infections, including at a call center in Seoul's Guro district and Protestant churches in Gyeonggi Province surrounding Seoul.
Four new cases from the Guro call center were confirmed on Saturday, bringing the total number of infections linked to the center to 152, the KCDC said. It is the largest cluster case in the capital city.
An additional three people tied to Bundang Jesaeng Hospital in Seongnam, south of Seoul, tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to 45, it said.
Starting earlier in the day, the Seoul government began limiting mass gathering events in social distancing efforts to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
The government calls for suspending the operation of religious, indoor sports and entertainment facilities for 15 days until April 5.
Also, the authorities are closely monitoring new confirmed cases coming from outside of the country as 11 new cases were reported. Earlier in the day, the country began conducting new coronavirus tests on all arrivals from Europe and requiring even those with negative results to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine.
Starting at midnight, the government set in motion the screening measure for both its citizens and foreigners, amid growing concerns over a steady rise in the number of imported COVID-19 cases.
The Seoul government, however, said it is leaning more toward tightening quarantine on inbound travelers rather than imposing entry restrictions.
"A policy will be consistently carried out to prevent the inflow of the virus from entrants, in line with the global COVID-19 outbreak situation," KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook said.
A total of 174 countries, including Canada and France, have banned entry of people from South Korea over coronavirus concerns.
Of the 98 new cases, 43 are in Daegu and 11 are in surrounding North Gyeongsang Province, the KCDC said. The total number of confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the two epicenters of the virus outbreak here, stood at 6,387 and 1,254, respectively.
Other major provinces and cities have also reported some infections, with Seoul reporting 10 additional cases, bringing the total confirmed cases to 324.
Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul and Incheon, saw its new daily infections rise by 16 to 337 on Saturday.
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