(ATTN: CHANGES headline; ADDS prime minister's comment in paras 12-13, details in paras 7, 17-18)
SEOUL, June 7 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported 57 additional cases of the new coronavirus Sunday, marking the second consecutive day the number was above 50, raising concerns over new cluster infections in the densely populated greater Seoul area ahead of the final phase of school reopening.
The new infections raised the country's total caseload to 11,776, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said. This is the highest number of daily infections since the 58 reported May 29.
The recent spike is mainly due to growth in new clusters at table tennis clubs and health product retailer Richway specialized in door-to-door sales for mostly elderly consumers, both based in Seoul, while group infections from nightclubs, a distribution center and religious gatherings continue to pose problems.
The Richway cluster is considered especially risky as a majority of the cases are elderly patients who are more vulnerable to the virus than the younger age groups.
Of the 57 new cases, 53 were community transmissions and four were from abroad, the KCDC said
Of the 53 local cases, all but one were reported in Seoul and adjacent areas. Seoul added 27 cases, while Incheon, west of Seoul, and Gyeonggi Province, surrounding the capital, reported six and 19 cases, respectively, it said.
The KCDC said cases traced to online retailer Coupang's warehouse in Bucheon, west of Seoul, increased by three to 133 as of noon, while those linked to the small churches and religious sessions in Incheon and Gyeonggi Province rose by two to 82. Cases linked to the Richway cluster rose by three to 45.
South Korea's caseload peaked in late February and early March when hundreds of new cases were reported each day. But the outbreak appeared to be flattening after hitting 79 on May 28 helped by authorities' aggressive tracing, testing and treatment.
New cases started to rise again due to infections reported at small group meetings of Protestant churchgoers and door-to-door sellers in the capital area.
In the first five days of June, new cases remained at around 30-40 per day but rose above 50 on Saturday, sparking worries that the country may have to return to strict social distancing to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The authorities remain on high alert as more South Korean pupils are set to return to classes Monday in the final phase of the government's reopening plan.
Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun said Sunday the week ahead will be critical for the quarantine measures of the greater Seoul area due to the full-fledged school reopening.
"Provincial governments will closely monitor whether small community gatherings take place and will take legal action against any violations of the quarantine rules," Chung said.
Accumulated confirmed cases in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province are closing in on 1,000, reporting 974 and 934, respectively, as of Sunday due to the recent cluster infections in the capital city.
Health authorities plan to reinforce social distancing guidelines for the metropolitan area, shuttering public facilities again and ordering entertainment establishments to refrain from opening until June 14.
If the figures from the metropolitan area rise, South Korea will have to consider returning to strict social distancing.
The death toll remained flat at 273. The number of people released from quarantine after fully recovering totaled 10,552, up 21 from the previous day, while 951 others remain in treatment, according to authorities.
The pandemic, which surfaced in China late last year, has killed nearly 400,000 people worldwide and infected nearly 6.9 million in just a few months, a tally from Johns Hopkins University showed.
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