(ATTN: UPDATES with latest figures, more comments throughout; CHANGES photos)
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, Sept. 2 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's spiking new daily virus cases have taken a breather, staying under 300 for the fourth consecutive day, but this week may be a critical juncture in determining whether the country will experience yet another round of outbreaks or not, as untraceable infections and patients in serious condition continued to rise.
The country reported 267 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, raising the total caseload to 20,449, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
It marked the 21st consecutive day of a triple-digit rise, but the figure has been slightly decelerating after reaching 441 on Thursday. Since Sunday, the daily number has stayed below 300.
Health authorities said the country's enhanced social-distancing scheme adopted over the weekend appears to be kicking in, although infections with unknown transmission routes and patients in critical condition are expected to increase down the road.
"The slowdown in the number of new cases is continuing with the upsurge that was feared last week not occurring as of now," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said during a regular press briefing.
Authorities earlier said the daily new infections number could soar to between 800 and 2,000 if the pace of the virus spread is maintained at last week's level.
"But we are far from being in a situation where we can feel relieved as cluster infections are continuing at various facilities and gatherings, and the declining trend is not very clear," he said.
KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong also said an "explosive surge" in the number of new infections has been constrained thanks to the public's active participation in the antivirus efforts, but the country is not out of the woods yet.
"We are at a crossroads that will determine whether there will be an additional spread of the virus or whether the curve will stabilize, allowing us to return to our daily lives," she said.
Officials said an additional week or two is necessary to witness the impact of the enhanced antivirus guidelines in full swing.
South Korea had kept the virus situation under control until early August after dealing with the country's first wave of outbreaks in late February and early March.
But since Aug. 14, the country has been reporting daily new infections in the triple digits, mostly traced to a conservative church in northern Seoul and an anti-government rally held in the capital on Aug. 15 Liberation Day.
Of the total coronavirus cases here, more than 5,000, or over a quarter, were reported in the past three weeks.
The vast majority of the recently confirmed cases were from the greater Seoul area, home to half of the country's 51 million population.
Of the 267 cases reported Wednesday, 187, or 70 percent, were from Seoul, its surrounding Gyeonggi Province and nearby Incheon.
Amid increasing difficulties in tracing and isolating potential patients, the government began restricting operations of restaurants, bakeries and franchise coffee chains in the Seoul metropolitan area Sunday, with Level Two social distancing rules already in place.
Health authorities are particularly concerned about a rise in the number of virus cases whose transmission routes are unclear.
As of Wednesday, 23 percent of the patients identified in the past two weeks had unknown transmission routes, a sign undetected virus cases may have already spread in the local community.
A report from the KCDC showed that nearly 40 percent of people in South Korea diagnosed with the new coronavirus were asymptomatic.
As of Aug. 25, a total of 17,945 people had tested positive for the virus, with health authorities having checked whether 9,756 of them had relevant symptoms at the time of being listed as confirmed cases.
Among them, 3,856, or 39 percent, were symptom-free, which means more people could have contracted COVID-19 unwittingly, and their transmission routes could not be identified, according to the report.
Another nagging concern for health authorities is the rising number of critically ill virus patients, which is in line with a recent surge in new cases.
Of the patients newly confirmed Wednesday, 39 percent were age 60 or older.
South Korea added two more deaths on the day, bringing the death toll to 346.
The number of patients in serious and critical condition also rose to 124, up 20 from the previous day and a tenfold jump from 12 reported two weeks earlier.
Officials have warned a further surge in the number of critically ill patients could lead to a hospital bed shortage, also hampering the treatment of non-COVID-19 patients.
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