(ATTN: UPDATES paras 22-26)
SEOUL, Aug. 14 (Yonhap) -- The number of daily local virus cases in South Korea jumped to an over 4-month high on Friday as sporadic clusters in the greater Seoul area piled up, forcing health authorities to consider raising the level of social distancing to stem further spread.
The country's new daily coronavirus cases, including 85 locally transmitted ones, reached 103, raising the total caseload to 14,873, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
The number of newly identified local infections marks the most since 88 on March 31.
The daily tally nearly doubled from 56 new virus cases reported Thursday and also marked the highest level since July 25, when new virus cases reached 113.
Domestic infections have recently bounced back as cases mostly linked to sporadic clusters in Seoul and adjacent areas jumped.
Health authorities voiced concerns that cases tied to churches, door-to-door retailers, traditional markets and schools continued to increase in the densely populated capital area, home to about half of the nation's population of 50 million.
"We are in a grave situation, as the greater Seoul area could face another wave of COVID-19 outbreaks," KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said in a briefing.
Health authorities also warned of further spread of the virus during the upcoming three-day weekend holiday period.
Some civic groups are pressing ahead with massive Liberation Day rallies on Saturday in central Seoul despite authorities' calls for their cancellation.
"We are standing at a (critical) juncture over whether the virus outbreak can be brought under control under the current health care system and whether the level of social distancing should be raised," Jeong said.
The government may decide over the next few days whether to raise the level of social distancing in Seoul and the adjacent metropolitan areas by one notch to Level 2 amid rising new cluster infections.
The KCDC earlier warned that the greater Seoul area is teetering on the brink of another spike in virus cases and that the easing of social distancing guidance may be rolled back if the upward trend continues.
In June, South Korea adopted a three-tier social distancing scheme, under which the country is currently at Level 1 distancing measures. Level 2 could be applied if daily infections exceed 50 for 14 straight days but remain under 100.
"If pre-set criteria are met, the government will take necessary measures even during the holiday," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a briefing.
Under the tighter Level 2 distancing, the number of people at gatherings should not exceed 50 at indoor facilities and 100 at outdoor venues.
The operation of 12 "high-risk" facilities, including clubs, bars, karaoke rooms and buffet restaurants, should also be suspended. The number of students going to schools will be reduced, and sports events will be held without spectators.
Of the new locally transmitted cases, 31 were reported in Seoul and 38 in the surrounding Gyeonggi Province, the KCDC said. The southeastern city of Busan added five more cases of COVID-19.
Sporadic cluster infections have shown no signs of a letup, with most cases traced to churches in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province.
Infections tied to a church in Yongin, south of Seoul, reached 72 as of noon, up 60 from the previous day.
Cases linked to a church in northern Seoul rose by 14 to 19. The Seoul metropolitan government ordered the temporary shutdown of the church, with health authorities conducting virus tests on 1,897 people.
Cases tied to Lotteria, a fast-food franchise, in Seoul reached 15 as of noon, up four over the past 24 hours.
On Friday, daily coronavirus infections in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province spiked to highest-ever levels, prompting local governments to restrict gatherings as part of efforts to contain the further spread of the virus in the country's most populous region.
As of 6 p.m., Seoul, home to around 10 million people, reported 58 new cases, a record-high number of daily infections since the outbreak of the disease earlier this year. The previous daily record was 46 tallied on March 10.
Gyeonggi Province also reported a daily high, of 62 cases as of 6 p.m. on Friday, exceeding the previous record of 47 reported a day earlier.
Late in the day, Seoul city government said that it decided to place tougher restrictions on gatherings at around 7,500 religious facilities, including churches and Buddhist temples.
Earlier in the day, the Gyeonggi provincial government raised the level of social distancing by restricting gatherings at churches and other religious facilities.
Over the past two weeks, cases with infection routes that are not traceable accounted for 13.7 percent of the total, the KCDC added.
Meanwhile, the daily number of cases coming in from overseas reached 18, bouncing back to a double-digit figure in two days.
The number of daily imported cases recently far surpassed that of local infections mainly because infections spiked among South Korean workers returning home from Iraq and Russian sailors.
Of the new imported cases, nine cases came from the United States, followed by Iraq with two cases and Ghana with two. The total number of cases coming in from overseas reached 2,618.
Starting Monday, foreign coronavirus patients who violate infectious disease measures should cover all costs of treatment and their self-quarantine, the government said.
Foreign patients who arrive from overseas after Aug. 24 will also be required to pay for part or all of the bills for COVID-19 treatment, based on the principle of reciprocity in diplomatic relations.
The government plans to charge different costs for foreign patients, depending on how partner countries are charging Korean nationals for treatment.
South Korea has treated locals and foreigners for COVID-19 free of charge, but the country has recently revised related law, as cases coming in from overseas have steadily risen, putting a burden on the local health care system.
South Korea, meanwhile, reported no additional deaths, keeping the death toll to 305. The fatality rate was 2.05 percent.
The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 13,863, up 46 from the previous day.
The country has carried out 1,665,084 tests since Jan. 3.
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