(ATTN: ADDS health minister's remarks, details in last 5 paras)
SEOUL, July 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new virus cases bounced back Sunday as imported cases climbed amid a continued rise in cluster infections in the greater Seoul area and the southwestern city of Gwangju.
The country added 44 cases, including 21 local infections, raising the total caseload to 13,417, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
The tally marked a rise from 35 new virus cases reported Saturday but a slight fall compared with 45 tallied Friday. The number of new virus cases had been on the decline through Saturday after hitting 63 Wednesday.
The country identified 23 more imported cases, posting double-digit numbers for more than two weeks. On Wednesday, the tally hit a three-month high of 33 cases.
A rise in cases coming in from overseas put further strain on health authorities' efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. Of 702 patients reported over the past two weeks, imported cases accounted for nearly 40 percent, according to the KCDC.
Sporadic cluster infections across the country continued to weigh on the country's virus fight, with most tied to religious facilities and door-to-door retailers.
Since Friday, the country has banned churches from organizing smaller gatherings other than regular worship services and having group meals. QR code-based entry logs also have been applied to churches.
The densely populated Seoul and adjacent areas accounted for most of the locally transmitted cases last month, but the virus outbreaks have been constantly reported in other parts of the country.
Of locally transmitted cases, 15 cases were reported in the greater Seoul area. Cluster infections tied to an apartment building in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, rose by one case to 31 as of noon.
Five cases were identified in Gwangju, 329 kilometers south Seoul. The city has recently emerged as a new hotbed of the virus outbreak outside of the Seoul metropolitan area.
Cases linked to a door-to-door business in Gwangju reached 135 as of noon, up four cases from the previous day. Of them, three new cases were traced to a badminton social club.
South Korea has been harried by rises in sporadic cluster infections in the greater Seoul area since it relaxed strict social distancing on May 6 on the flattened virus curve.
The country's health authorities remain jittery over a potential new wave of virus outbreaks in the summer amid sustained rises in local infections and cases coming in from overseas.
Health officials warned that they may consider implementing tougher infection preventive measures -- currently in place only in the Seoul metropolitan area -- across the country if the virus situation worsens.
The KCDC said the number of COVID-19 patients in serious condition reached 19, the first time in a month that the tally fell below 20.
Since early July, the country has administered remdesivir, an experimental drug conventionally used to treat Ebola, for 27 coronavirus patients in critical condition. Of them, nine people showed some improvement, the KCDC said.
South Korea, meanwhile, reported one additional death, bringing the death toll to 289. The fatality rate was 2.15 percent.
The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 12,178, up 34 from the previous day.
The country has carried out 1,402,144 tests since Jan. 3.
A preliminary antibody test showed only one out of 3,055 people tested positive for coronavirus antibodies in South Korea.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told reporters that herd immunity is "impossible" and renewed calls for citizens to strictly follow containment measures until COVID-19 vaccines become available.
"To co-exist with COVID-19, we have no choice but to accept a new social culture that harmonizes life and containment," Park said.
To cope with a steady rise in imported cases, the government said it will quarantine foreign sailors who arrive at South Korean ports for two weeks.
Quarantine facilities will be set up in Busan and Yeosu on Monday, the government said.
BTS' Jimin to release photo book next month
S. Korea to lift post-entry PCR testing requirement Saturday
S. Korea decides to scrap satellite launches using Russian rockets amid sanctions
Busan to light up in purple before and after BTS concert in October
(2nd LD) DP introduces motion for FM's dismissal
Korean actor Lee Sun-kyun nominated for best actor at Int'l Emmys for "Dr. Brain"
(LEAD) No Korean victims reported from Indonesian stadium tragedy: foreign ministry
State auditor notifies ex-Pres Moon of written investigation over death of fisheries official
Unification minister says N. Korea trying to tame S. Korean government, grab U.S. attention
Yoon's approval rating drops after hot mic incident: poll