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SEOUL, Sept. 3 (Yonhap) -- The number of additional new coronavirus cases fell to below 200 for the first time in more than two weeks on Thursday, but cluster infections continued to pop up across the country and critically ill patients are on the rise.
The country reported 195 new COVID-19 cases, including 188 local infections, raising the total caseload to 20,644, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
Thursday's daily tally marks the smallest since 197 on Aug. 17.
South Korea has been posting triple-digit rises for three weeks due to cluster infections tied to a slew of churches and an anti-government rally in central Seoul on Aug. 15.
On Aug. 14, the country reported more than 100 patients. The daily new infections continued to snowball to 441 last Thursday, before sliding to below 300 on Sunday. The number of new cases stayed under 300 through Wednesday.
The recent infections were worrisome as a huge chunk of the new infections came from the greater Seoul area that houses half of the country's 51-million population.
South Korea launched a Level 2 social distancing scheme in greater Seoul on Aug. 16 and nationwide on Aug. 23, under which indoor meetings of more than 50 people and open-air gatherings of over 100 people are banned.
So-called risk-prone facilities, including karaoke rooms, clubs, PC cafes and buffets, have been ordered to shut down.
But since Sunday, the country been implementing a quasi-Level 3 scheme in the Seoul metropolitan area, in which restaurants can only offer takeout after 9 p.m. Franchise coffee chains can only offer takeaway around the clock.
Health authorities say they will continue to monitor the effect of the distancing scheme before deciding whether the country should move on to the highest level of three, which would ban all gatherings of 10 or more people.
Health authorities said they hope that the stricter nationwide social distancing scheme will reduce the figure to below 100, which is considered a manageable level under the local medical system.
Of the locally transmitted cases, Seoul added 69 cases, while the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and the western port city of Incheon reported 64 and 15 cases, respectively.
Other municipalities reported additional infections, with the southwestern city of Gwangju adding six cases and the central city of Daejeon reporting four new cases. The southern port city of Ulsan added seven.
As of Wednesday, a total of 1,117 cases has been traced to the Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, a hotbed of the recent spike in new infections.
The church members have been blamed for refusing to cooperate with strict social distancing rules.
Another 441 virus cases were tied to the Aug. 15 demonstration in central Seoul, with related infections identified not only in the capital city area but in different provinces across the country.
Health authorities say that while the numbers of new patients are ostensibly on a downward trend, the country's virus fight is still perilous due to the growing number of patients in critical conditions, which may potentially lead to more fatalities.
The proportion of new patients with unidentified transmission routes also 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 154, soaring 31 from the previous day and setting a new record since the country reported its first COVID-19 case in late January.
It also marks a sharp rise from just single-digit figures reported through mid-August.
South Korea added three deaths, raising the death toll to 329. The overall fatality rate reached 1.59 percent.
The number of newly identified imported cases came to seven.
Among the imported infections, three were from the United States. There were also cases from the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Algeria.
The accumulated number of imported cases reached 2,858, with South Korean nationals accounting for 63 percent.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries reached 15,529, up 173 from the previous day. Slightly more than three-quarters of the patients identified here were cured.
South Korea has carried out 2,000,552 COVID-19 tests since Jan. 3.
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