(ATTN: ADDS details throughout; CHANGES photos)
SEOUL, Aug. 19 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily new virus cases have now soared by three-digit figures for a week straight as the country on Wednesday reported the largest number of cases since early March, with infections traced to churches in the capital city of Seoul continuing to swell.
The country added 297 more COVID-19 cases, including 283 local infections, raising the total caseload to 16,058, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
Over the past week, the daily new virus cases have been in the triple digits, with almost 1,300 cases being newly identified. Wednesday's daily tally marks the most since March 8, when the country reported 367 COVID-19 cases.
The country implemented enhanced social distancing guidelines as of midnight to stem further spread of the virus.
South Korea was on the verge of putting the COVID-19 pandemic under control, reporting just 56 cases on Thursday.
On the following day, however, the figure shot up to a whopping 103 cases due to group infections from a church in the capital city of Seoul. On Sunday, South Korea reported 279 new daily infections, marking the first time since early March that the figure surpassed 200.
The country saw more than 100 daily cases in late July as well, but it was attributable to South Korean workers returning home from virus-hit Iraq through chartered flights.
Health authorities, however, say the current situation is worrisome as most of the cases have been locally transmitted, and centered in the capital and neighboring areas, home to half of the country's 50 million population.
Of the newly identified local infections, 150 cases were reported from the capital city of Seoul, and 94 from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province.
Incheon, just west of Seoul, added eight more cases. The southern port city of Busan also reported nine additional infections.
Infections tied to the Sarang Jeil Church have spiked to 457 as of Tuesday, according to the health authorities. Those aged 60 and above accounted for nearly 40 percent.
Health authorities said they have carried out tests on thousands of church members, but the whereabouts of hundreds of others remain unknown.
Other major cities across the nation also continued to report cases linked to the church as they were in close contact with virus patients during a massive weekend rally.
As the new daily cases spiked, South Korea decided to raise the level of social distancing in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province by one notch to Level 2 in the three-tier system for two weeks from Sunday.
Starting Wednesday, the measure was expanded to Incheon, just west of Seoul.
More strings were attached to South Koreans' daily lives as well. Outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people are strictly restricted. If they are held indoors, the ceiling is 50 people. Sports events will be allowed without spectators.
So-called risk-prone facilities, including karaoke rooms, clubs, PC cafes and buffets, have been ordered to shut down.
With religious facilities emerging as the hotbed of the pandemic, churches in the greater Seoul area will not be allowed to have in-person worship services.
Previously, South Korea only asked churchgoers in the region to refrain from holding gatherings other than regular worship services.
While such measures are relatively loose compared to draconian lockdowns that have been put in place in other countries, they are still deemed the strongest action made by South Korea, which reported its first case on Jan. 20.
Health authorities are currently struggling to curb the spread of the virus in the greater Seoul area, which houses around half of the country's population, after the southeastern city of Daegu reported over 5,000 virus cases linked to a religious sect, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
Due to the cluster infections, the country's new daily virus cases peaked at 909 on Feb. 29.
On Wednesday, South Korea reported just 14 imported cases, with the United States accounting for four infections. Three were from Kazakhstan, and there were also cases from Indonesia, France and Spain.
South Korea, meanwhile, reported no more deaths, keeping the toll at 306. The fatality rate was 1.91 percent.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 14,006, up 72 from the previous day.
The country has carried out 1,715,064 COVID-19 tests since Jan. 3.
Yoon's outreach to Southeast Asia keeps China in the loop
Allies' defense chiefs highlight watertight alliance based on full extended deterrence against N. Korean threats
(News Focus) Police under fire for lax response to emergency calls hours before Itaewon crush
Police under fire for lax response to emergency calls hours before Itaewon crush
Role of administrative authorities questioned in Itaewon disaster