(ATTN: ADDS details throughout; CHANGES photos)
SEOUL, Aug. 18 (Yonhap) -- The number of daily new virus cases in South Korea bounced back sharply Tuesday as infections linked to churches in the capital city showed no signs of a slowdown, prompting the country to consider tougher virus-preventive measures in the greater Seoul area currently dogged by a series of cluster infections.
The country added 246 more COVID-19 cases, including 235 local infections, raising the country's total caseload to 15,761, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
It marked a three-digit number for the fifth straight day, following 166 more infections on Saturday and 103 Friday.
On Sunday, South Korea reported a whopping 279 new daily infections, marking the first time since early March that the figure surpassed 200. The figure fell back to 197 on Monday.
The country added nearly 1,000 cases over the past five days.
Of the newly identified local infections, a total of 131 cases were reported from the capital city of Seoul, and 52 from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province.
Incheon, just west of Seoul, added 18 more cases.
Infections tied to the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul have spiked to 457, up 138 from a day earlier, according to the health authorities. Those aged 60 and above accounted for nearly 40 percent.
Of the church-traced cases, the capital city of Seoul accounted for 282, trailed by the neighboring Gyeonggi Province with 119. There were also 25 patients outside greater Seoul, underscoring that the church-related virus cases have spread fast across the nation.
The cases not only cover church members, but also second-stage transmissions at call centers and senior nursing homes, the KCDC said.
Health authorities said they have carried out tests on 2,500 church members so far and are currently tracking the whereabouts of around 800 members. Some 15 percent of the church members tested were confirmed to have been infected with the virus.
South Korea said all people who participated in a large-scale anti-government rally held on Saturday should visit the nearest clinics to be tested, as some church members infected with the virus attended the demonstration.
Other sporadic cluster infections continued as well.
A police station in central Seoul reported four patients so far, up four from a day earlier.
A total of seven patients were confirmed from a Starbucks store in Paju, north of Seoul, on Monday, raising the total number of cases tied to the coffee shop to 49.
In the southern port city of Busan, a vocational high school reported two more patients, raising the related caseload to 17.
"This week will be a critical juncture for the country's virus fight as cluster infections in the greater capital area are on the brink of spreading nationwide," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a regular press briefing.
Kwon Jun-wook, a senior health official, echoed the view, urging all people to stay home for the time being.
"If we do not curb the spread of the virus this week, not only the greater Seoul area with a population of 25 million will come under threat, but our everyday lives may come to a halt," Kwon said.
Health authorities added that over the past week, each COVID-19 patient in the greater Seoul area has infected an average of 1.78 people.
South Korea, which never imposed a draconian lockdown, has been seeking to curb the spread of the virus while maintaining most business and daily activities.
Due to the spike in the new virus cases, however, health authorities decided to raise the level of social distancing in Seoul and the neighboring areas by one notch to Level 2 in the three-tier system for two weeks from Sunday.
The scheme will still allow South Koreans to maintain most of their daily routines, but gatherings of more than 100 people will be banned. Sports events will be banned from having spectators.
Health authorities said they may further adopt tougher social distancing rules unless the pace of new infections in the Seoul metropolitan area, which houses around half of the nation's population, reaches a manageable level this week.
"The current situation is so grave that we have to consider adopting tougher (infection preventive) measures." Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said in a pan-government meeting on infection prevention. "Anyone in the capital city and neighboring areas can be infected, and it is worrisome that the virus outbreak may spread across the country."
Should the highest level of distancing rules be imposed, gatherings of more than 10 people will be banned. South Koreans will then face the most intense restrictions in their everyday lives since the country detected its first COVID-19 case on Jan. 20.
Health authorities are concerned over the latest spike in the number of cases traced to churches, as it resembles that of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a minor religious sect, which was the epicenter of the country's first wave of the virus outbreak.
Thousands of followers, most of whom were from its branch in the southeastern city of Daegu, were infected with the virus. Due to the cluster infections, the country's new daily virus cases peaked at 909 on Feb. 29.
South Korea, meanwhile, reported one more death, raising the toll to 306. The fatality rate came to 1.94 percent.
The country added just 11 imported cases on Tuesday, with France accounting for two cases. There were also infections among arrivals from the United States, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.
South Korea, which has a population of roughly 51 million, carried out 1,697,042 tests since Jan. 3.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 13,934, up 17 from the previous day.
The latest infections in the Seoul metropolitan area are believed to be the so-called GH genetic strain of the new coronavirus, which is more infectious compared to that found among Shincheonji-linked cases, according to health authorities.
The KCDC added remdesivir, an experimental drug conventionally used for Ebola, has been administered to 128 coronavirus patients in critical condition at 35 hospitals across the country.
Disgraced late Chun: Coup leader known for bloody crackdown on democracy uprising
Navy's pursuit of light aircraft carrier hits budget snag
Seoul's end-of-war declaration push raises questions over UNC future
Moon makes fresh pitch for papal visit to N.K., declares climate pledges during Europe trip
(News Focus) Late ex-President Roh was accused of military coup, but paved path to democratic reform