(ATTN: UPDATES with quote of official in 7th para; CORRECTS figures to 34 from 44 in para 10)
SEOUL, March 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported 146 new cases of the novel coronavirus Saturday, bringing the nation's total infections to 9,478, the public health agency said.
The death toll rose by five to 144, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
South Korea's southeastern city of Daegu and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province -- the nation's two worst-affected regions -- reported 73 of the 146 new cases.
South Korea had released 4,811 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Saturday, up 283 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.
It marked the first time the number of cured people exceeded the number of quarantined patients since Jan. 20, when the virus was first detected on South Korean soil.
South Korea's cure rate for people infected with the virus is 50 percent, an achievement that South Korean officials hailed in their fight against the contagious respiratory illness.
"The 50 percent cure rate is a small achievement that all in our society should celebrate, though we have a long way to go," Yoon Tae-ho, director-general for public health policy at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said in a briefing.
South Korea said the number of imported cases out of the 146 newly confirmed patients came to 41 -- 25 from Europe, 12 from the United States and Mexico, and four from Thailand.
The KCDC said the number of imported cases came to 363 out of the 9,478 confirmed cases.
The public health agency said that in Daegu, the epicenter of coronavirus outbreak in South Korea, 121 people -- 14 doctors, 56 nurses and 51 nursing assistants -- were infected with COVID-19 as of Tuesday. Among them, 34 are believed to be members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a fringe religious sect accused of aggravating the coronavirus outbreak.
The group is linked to about 55 percent of the country's total confirmed cases.
Separately, seven members of Manmin Central Church in Seoul, whose founder is viewed as a cult leader, were infected with the coronavirus. Officials said about 70 members of Manmin Central Church attended a service at Manmin Church in Muan, located about 385 kilometers southwest of Seoul, on March 5.
Meanwhile, 13 more patients at a hospital in Daegu were infected with the virus, raising the total number of people infected with COVID-19 to 75 -- 74 patients and a staff member, according to Daegu city officials.
South Korea has strengthened social distancing through April 5 to contain the spread of the virus that emerged in China late last year.
The government asked people to stay at home and refrain from activities that could cause close contact in enclosed places, such as religious gatherings and indoor sports activities.
South Korea has enforced a two-week quarantine period and virus tests for all long-term arrivals from Europe, regardless of symptoms, in an effort to contain imported virus cases.
Starting Friday, passengers from the United States for long-term stay are required to self-isolate at home for two weeks.
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