SEOUL, Aug. 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily new virus cases jumped by triple digits for the seventh straight day Thursday as church-linked infections in the greater capital area continued to pile up, with more virus cases being identified across the nation.
The country added 288 more COVID-19 cases, including 276 local infections, raising the total caseload to 16,346, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
It marked a slight fall from 297 additional cases reported Wednesday, but the daily new virus cases have been in the triple digits since Friday when 103 new infections were reported. More than 1,500 cases have been newly identified over the past week.
A flare-up in coronavirus cases, mostly traced to churches, have been reported in Seoul and its surrounding Gyeonggi Province, home to half of the country's 51 million people.
Health authorities warned that this week will be a critical time in judging whether the country will face another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But outside the greater Seoul area, many virus cases have been newly added over the past week, with more cases being reported in 15 cities and provinces, spawning concerns that the virus is spreading across the nation.
Of the newly identified local infections, 135 cases were reported in the capital city of Seoul and 81 from Gyeonggi Province.
Incheon, just west of Seoul, added 10 more cases and the southeastern port city of Busan reported 15 additional infections.
Cases traced to the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, a new hotbed of the latest spike in virus cases, reached 623 as of Wednesday noon, up 166 from a day earlier.
Of the identified patients, those from the wider Seoul area came to 588, according to health authorities.
The Sarang Jeil Church-linked cases marked the largest cluster infection, after more than 5,000 virus cases traced to the minor religious sect of Shincheonji were reported in the southeastern city of Daegu in late February and early March.
Health authorities also urged participants in a massive anti-government rally held in central Seoul on Saturday to immediately take virus tests regardless of showing symptoms.
The KCDC remained on higher alert over a potential explosive outbreak tied to the march as it is hard to trace the whereabouts of thousands of protesters who came to Seoul from other cities.
They were presumed to be in close contact with virus patients during the rally, in which a large number of Sarang Jeil Church members participated.
At least 10 people who joined the weekend rally were confirmed to have contracted the virus, even though they were not affiliated with the conservative church.
Alarmed by soaring virus cases, South Korea raised the level of social distancing in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province on Sunday by one notch to Level 2 in the three-tier system for two weeks. Starting Wednesday, the measure was expanded to Incheon.
Indoor meetings of more than 50 people and open-air gatherings of over 100 people are banned in principle. So-called risk-prone facilities, including karaoke rooms, clubs, PC cafes and buffets, have been ordered to shut down.
The government said it is not yet the time to consider raising the level of social distancing to Level 3.
The highest anti-virus curbs can be issued when the number of daily virus cases reaches a two-week average of 100-200 and the doubling of new COVID-19 cases occurs more than twice a week.
South Korea reported 12 imported cases, with the United States accounting for three infections. Two cases came from Kazakhstan and another two from Ukraine.
Cases coming in from overseas rebounded back to double-digit numbers since mid-June for about a month, but such infections recently slowed.
South Korea, meanwhile, reported one more death, raising the tally to 307. The fatality rate was 1.88 percent.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 14,063, up 57 from the previous day.
The country has carried out 1,734,083 coronavirus tests since Jan. 3.
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