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SEOUL, June 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is teetering on the brink of losing momentum in its virus fight, as cluster infections in the Seoul metropolitan area could fuel further community spread amid eased social distancing, health authorities warned Tuesday.
The country added 38 new cases, including 35 local infections, raising the total caseload to 11,852, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). It marked daily new cases of below 40 for the second straight day, and a decrease from 57 cases a day earlier and 51 on Saturday.
All but two of the locally transmitted cases were reported from the Seoul metropolitan area.
Virus cases in the capital area accounted for nearly 97 percent of the 313 locally transmitted infections reported since June 1, according to the KCDC. In Seoul alone, total virus cases surpassed the 1,000 mark for the first time.
South Korea has been wrestling with multiple, sporadic cluster infections tied to religious gatherings, nightclubs and a logistics center in Seoul and the surrounding metropolitan area after the country relaxed its social distancing scheme on May 6.
"Quarantine authorities have (viewed cluster cases) with a sense of crisis," KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Joon-wook said in a briefing.
"We are on edge due to the possibility that mass infections could take place at schools, medical institutions, nurseries and welfare facilities at any time," he noted.
Infections traced to a warehouse run by e-commerce leader Coupang in Bucheon, just west of Seoul, reached 139 as of noon. Those linked to small churches in the densely populated metropolitan area reached 88, and cases tied to Seoul's nightlife area of Itaewon hit 277.
Virus cases linked to a door-to-door business retailer and sports-related facilities have emerged as new infection clusters, spawning concerns over further community spread in the metropolitan area.
COVID-19 cases tied to the door-to-door business establishment reached 68 as of noon. Those linked to a table tennis gym in southwestern Seoul came in at 51.
In southeastern Seoul, an assistant cook at the cafeteria of a private educational institute was confirmed to be infected, prompting some 450 people -- students, teachers and workers -- to undergo tests.
The cook visited a table tennis club and has shown symptoms since Wednesday.
According to health authorities, at least nine cases have been traced to a shelter for Korean-Chinese people in western Seoul.
Health officials remain on high alert over yet another infection cluster in the capital area, as such facilities for foreign migrants appear to be a blind spot in quarantine efforts.
Singapore, once touted as a role model in coping with the pandemic, saw a sharp rise in virus cases tied to lodging facilities for foreign migrants.
At least six cases have been also traced to a day care center for senior citizens in Gwangmyeong, just south of Seoul.
"If we fail to break the chain of cluster infections at an early date, it is worrisome that mass infections may pop up in the densely populated area," Sohn Young-rae, a senior health official, said in a briefing.
The string of cluster infections in Seoul and nearby areas came as the country completed its phased reopening of schools Monday, giving the go-ahead for students to return to their classrooms.
But concerns about cluster infections at schools linger, as hundreds of schools in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province have delayed their reopening due to virus cases.
The education ministry said 520 schools across the nation suspended their reopening as of 10 a.m. Most of them are in the Seoul metropolitan area.
The country's eased social distancing scheme is in peril in the face of a steady rise in new cases.
South Korea has decided to beef up quarantine measures in the Seoul metropolitan area, shutting down public facilities and regulating entertainment establishments until June 14.
After nearly six weeks of strict social distancing, the country switched to its "everyday life quarantine" scheme on May 6 to enable citizens to carry out economic and social activities under quarantine rules.
Health authorities said they have yet to consider returning to the strict scheme.
The country, meanwhile, added three imported cases and reported two more deaths, bringing the total death tall to 276. The fatality rate was 2.31 percent.
The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 10,589, up 26 from the previous day.
The country has carried out 1,035,997 tests since Jan. 3.
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