(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 30-32)
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 new cases reported Wednesday, the highest since March 8. 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.
The combined number of virus patients surpassed 5,000 in the wider capital area alone.
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.
"We are standing on the cusp of the nationwide outbreak. The wider capital region should brace for a massive wave of the outbreak," Kwon Joon-wook, deputy director at the Central Disease Control Headquarters, said in a briefing.
Kwon said if the country fails to trace contacts, it may face serious virus situations similar to those in the United States and Europe.
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, 81 from Gyeonggi Province and 10 from Incheon, just west of Seoul.
The southeastern port city of Busan reported 15 additional infections. The central city of Daejeon reported eight more cases, and two were reported from the southeastern city of Daegu and one from the southwestern city of Gwangju.
Health authorities, in particular, fretted over a surge in cases traced to the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, a new hotbed of the latest spike in virus cases, and infections tied to a massive weekend rally in central Seoul.
Cases tied to the church came to 676 as of noon, up 53 from a day earlier. Of the identified patients, those from the wider Seoul area came to 637, the KCDC said.
The church-tied cluster infection has also spread to 13 locations. Health authorities are conducting an epidemiological study on some 150 related facilities, including call centers, offices and hospitals, to stem the further spread.
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 Daegu in late February and early March.
Health authorities also urged participants in the anti-government rally held 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 18 people who joined the rally were confirmed to have contracted the virus as of noon, even though they were not affiliated with the conservative church.
The KCDC said cases linked to the protest came to 60 as of noon, of which 33 patients are affiliated with the church. People in their 60s and older accounted for 70 percent of the patients.
"Health authorities think that the church-tied infections and the rally might have served as a catalyst in spurring the virus spread nationwide," Kwon said.
The country has continued to report sporadic cluster infections.
Cases traced to a coffee chain in Paju, just north of Seoul, rose by three cases to 58.
At least 18 infections have been linked to a sports facility in northern Seoul.
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.
"Preset criteria have yet to be met in the bigger Seoul area," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a briefing.
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.
If the level is raised, its impact on the economy and people's daily lives is expected to be significant. Gatherings of more than 10 people will be banned, and offline school classes will be suspended.
The Seoul metropolitan government announced a plan to ban street rallies of 10 or more people across the capital, which is stronger than the current Level 2 measures.
Under the move that will go into effect Friday, all demonstrations with 10 or more participants will be banned until midnight on Aug. 30, according to the Seoul metropolitan government.
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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