(ATTN: RECASTS headline; ADDS details in paras 4-6, 8, 10-16, photo)
By Lee Minji
SEOUL, May 27 (Yonhap) -- Seoul and the surrounding area have added 36 new coronavirus cases, data showed Wednesday, raising concerns over a possibly bigger outbreak at a time when the country is attempting to return to normal life.
New infections reported in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon totaled 36 as of midnight, more than doubling from 14 reported the previous day, according to the data from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
More than half of the infections, 19, were reported in Seoul, followed by 11 in Incheon, a port city west of Seoul, and six in the surrounding Gyeonggi Province.
South Korea as a whole added 40 cases, the largest daily increase in 49 days, raising the country's COVID-19 caseload to 11,265.
Most of the new cases were traced to an infection cluster originating from nightspots in the Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon, with related cases totaling 259 as of noon.
More than 50 of the 259 Itaewon-linked cases, including those that have spread through seven stages of transmission, are believed to trace to a 25-year-old cram school instructor in Incheon who allegedly lied about not visiting the area in an epidemiological probe.
A retail logistics center in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, that is associated with e-commerce giant Coupang has also emerged as a virus hotspot, with 36 cases identified as of 9 a.m.
By area, 22 were based in Incheon, followed by 10 in Gyeonggi Province and four in Seoul, according to the KCDC.
While Bucheon is located in Gyeonggi Province, it sits between the southwestern area of Seoul and Incheon, raising risks of possible transmissions in the greater Seoul area.
Regarding views that the Coupang case derived from the Itaewon cluster, KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said authorities are weighing the possibility of transmission by another route.
"We are looking into the case, leaving open the possibility of the first patient identified in the Coupang case contracting (the virus) by another route rather than (through) a visitor at the Bucheon buffet restaurant," she said, referring to the party venue where several Itaewon-linked infections have occurred.
Some 3,600 employees at the Bucheon logistics center are being checked for the virus, Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said, adding that authorities will look into whether workplace quarantine guidelines were in place.
The spike in cases come less than a month after South Korea ended its strict social distancing campaign and shifted to an "everyday life quarantine" scheme.
The measure, which went into effect on May 6, was introduced to help people return to normal life while maintaining quarantine measures.
Students have been returning to school under the updated quarantine scheme, with more than 2 million students at kindergartens and grade schools resuming in-person classes earlier in the day.
The latest developments, however, are expected to hinder the transition for the time being.
In a Facebook post updated late Tuesday, Bucheon Mayor Jang Deog-cheon announced the city will be returning to strict social distancing for the time being to prevent additional infections.
Under the plan, schools in the area will remain closed and run online classes for all grades except for high school seniors, who already resumed in-person classes last week.
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