(ATTN: ADDS details throughout; CHANGES photos)
SEOUL, Sept. 2 (Yonhap) -- The number of additional new coronavirus cases stayed below 300 for the fourth consecutive day Wednesday, but health authorities remain vigilant as untraceable and critically ill patients are still at large.
The country reported 267 new COVID-19 cases, including 253 local infections, raising the total caseload to 20,449, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
It marked the 20th consecutive day of triple-digit rises. The country has been reporting three-digit new COVID-19 cases since Aug. 14, led by group infections from a conservative church in the capital city.
The daily new infections continued to snowball to 441 on Thursday, far below the record high of 909 cases reported in late February. But a huge chunk of infections reported over the past few weeks came from the greater Seoul area that houses half of the country's 51-million population.
"For now, there has been no further spike in the number of new patients as anticipated last week," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a briefing. "But we cannot be at ease, as cluster infections are persisting, and the numbers are not showing a clear downward trend."
KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong echoed the view, pointing out that this week will be a critical juncture for the country in relation to the virus outbreak.
"Last week, health authorities warned that the daily new cases can reach 800 or even 2,000 this week, based on the analysis by experts. While the number currently still hovers above 200, we were able to avoid an explosive growth, as people cooperated with distancing rules," Jeong added.
Through the social distancing scheme, the goal is to reduce the number of new daily cases to below 100, considered a controllable level for the country's medical system, Jeong said.
Of the locally transmitted cases, Seoul added 98 cases, while the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and the west port city of Incheon reported 79 and 10 cases, respectively.
Other major municipalities reported additional infections, with the southwestern city of Gwangju adding 10 cases and the central city of Daejeon reporting 14 new cases.
As of Wednesday, a total of 1,117 cases have been traced to the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, a hotbed of the recent spike in new infections, up 34 from the previous day.
Another 441 virus cases have been tied to the Aug. 15 anti-government demonstration in central Seoul, with related infections identified not only in the capital city area but in different provinces across the country.
A church in Yeongdeungpo Ward, western Seoul, has reported 38 cases as well, up four from a day earlier, the KCDC said.
A hospital located in eastern Seoul reported 10 patients as of Wednesday.
Despite the latest slowdown in daily new cases, whether South Korea is bringing the latest spike in virus cases under control is still unclear.
According to the KCDC, the proportion of new patients with unidentified transmission routes hit a new record high of 23 percent over the past two weeks, indicating there could be more unknown infections in local communities.
The number of patients in serious or critical condition came to 124, soaring 20 from the previous day. Nearly 65 percent of them were aged 70 and above.
It marked a sharp increase from just nine patients reported on Aug. 18. A higher number of critically ill virus patients implies the country's COVID-19 deaths can also rise further down the road, and the country may run out of hospital beds in the near future as well.
"We plan to relocate patients whose conditions have improved to the general ward, to operate hospital beds for those in critical conditions more efficiently," Kim added.
South Korea plans to allocate some 100 billion won (US$84.2 million) to local hospitals to secure 500 more beds for critical patients by the first half of next year. They will add to the existing 511 beds.
Health authorities say this week will be a critical juncture as the country can observe the effect of the Level 2 social distancing scheme that was implemented in greater Seoul on Aug. 16 and nationwide on Aug. 23.
Under the Level 2 scheme, 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.
If the current restrictions are elevated to the highest level, gatherings of more than 10 people will be banned.
On Sunday, South Korea also implemented a quasi-Level 3 scheme in the Seoul metropolitan area. Under enhanced guidelines, restaurants and bakeries can operate until 9 p.m., and only takeaway and delivery are permitted from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
For franchise coffee chains, only takeout or delivery is permitted regardless of operating hours.
Health authorities said they are also working on setting guidelines for travelers over the Chuseok holiday, which falls in late September and early October, as millions of South Koreans usually travel across the nation to visit relatives.
South Korea added two new deaths, raising the death toll to 326. The fatality rate reached 1.59 percent.
So far, 19 patients tested positive posthumously.
Among the fatalities, a whopping 97.2 percent had underlying diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The rate for patients aged 80 and above reached 20.25 percent. In contrast, that of patients aged 59 and below came to only 0.15 percent.
The number of newly identified imported cases came to 14.
Of the cases, seven patients were from the United States, and two were from the Philippines. There were cases from Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia, and Ukraine as well.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries reached 15,356, up 158 from the previous day. This means around 75 percent of the patients reported have been cured.
South Korea has carried out 1,980,295 COVID-19 tests since Jan. 3.
BTS' J-Hope closes Chicago's Lollapalooza festival
(2nd LD) Kim, Pelosi agree to support efforts for denuclearization of N. Korea
(LEAD) Assembly speaker meets with Pelosi amid heightened Sino-U.S. tensions
Assembly Speaker Kim to meet with U.S. House Speaker Pelosi this week
(LEAD) Yoon's approval rating falls to 28.9 pct
Court recognizes death after drinking with boss as workplace accident
150 front-line Army commandoes to conduct joint training at U.S. Army's National Training Center
Whereabouts of 55 Thai tourists on Jeju unknown
(2nd LD) S. Korea's new COVID-19 cases above 100,000 for 6th day
Deputy national security adviser resigns due to health reasons