SEOUL, June 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new virus cases spiked again Wednesday as cluster infections tied to religious gatherings in the greater Seoul area continued to swell, putting further strain on the country's virus fight.
The country added 49 more cases of the new coronavirus, including 46 local infections, raising the total caseload to 11,590, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
The densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country's 50 million population, had all but four of the new cases, fueling concerns that a new wave of COVID-19 infections may occur.
The daily number of new infections had been slowing, albeit with some ups and downs, since hitting a nearly two-month high of 75 last week.
It stayed below 40 for the past four days. Any numbers above the 50 threshold mean South Korea has to seriously consider going back to strict social distancing, again shuttering schools and public facilities nationwide.
Church-linked transmission in Seoul and surrounding areas have been a new source of concern for health authorities.
After the country eased social distancing guidelines in early May, the country has reported more than 100 cases from churches. Nearly most of them were from the Seoul metropolitan area.
On Tuesday, the number of cases tied to 23 small churches in Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, first detected Sunday, reached 45, up 22 from a day ago, according to the KCDC.
Since May 6, South Korea has been rolling out what it calls an "everyday life quarantine" campaign, which aimed at normalizing most of the daily activities under basic quarantine measures.
The eased social distancing scheme has been in peril, however, as cluster infections among clubgoers in central Seoul emerged early last month. More recently, mass infections connected to a logistics center have been a difficult task for health authorities.
Alarmed by the spiking new infections tied to clubs and the distribution center just west of Seoul, South Korea rushed to enhance quarantine measures in the greater Seoul area.
The country's health authorities warned that citizens will be forced to go back to the strict social distancing scheme nationwide should it fail to get the virus spread under control by June 14.
As of Tuesday, a total of 270 infections have been linked to clubgoers and 117 cases to the warehouse run by e-commerce giant Coupang.
Sporadic cluster infections are also putting health authorities to the test as more students are set to return to schools.
Students have been gradually returning to classrooms in phases since late last month, although some schools, most of them from the greater Seoul area, were forced to delay the schedule due to local infections.
On Wednesday, first-year high school students, second-year middle school students and other selected elementary school students returned to their classrooms.
When the third phase is completed, 4.59 million, about 77 percent of all South Korean school kids, will be attending in-person classes.
Schools, however, will continue taking precautionary measures, including staggered lunches, shifting student attendance, reduced class time, and a mix of online and offline classes.
The country added three imported cases and reported one additional death, raising the total death toll to 273.
The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 10,467, up 21 from the previous day.
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