South Korea's novel coronavirus cases are likely to keep rising through early March as local health authorities vowed to beef up the anti-virus fight, focusing on a minor religious sect that has been at the center of the outbreak here.
South Korea reported another daily spike of COVID-19 infections, with 586 additional cases bringing the total here to 3,736 as of 4 p.m., according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
Of them, 21 patients have died. On Sunday alone, four deaths were reported, all of whom lived in the southeastern city of Daegu and were in their 80s, according to the authorities.
Of the 586 new cases, 469 are in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and 67 were reported in neighboring North Gyeongsang Province, according to the KCDC.
Other major provinces and cities have also reported some infections, with Seoul reporting a total of 87 cases and the second-largest city of Busan having 83 patients so far.
During a regular briefing, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said that the country has seen a slower spread of the coronavirus across the nation, but the chance of it spreading further remains.
"Contrary to earlier concerns, the speed of COVID-19 of spreading into other parts of the country beyond Daegu has been reduced," Park said.
Pointing to cases that have occurred nationwide, however, he said, "The possibility of the nationwide spread of the infection remains. We believe the coming one to two weeks will be a watershed moment."
In order to prevent a high death toll in the face of a spike in the number of patients and subsequent shortage of hospital beds, the government said it will categorize the patients into four groups in line with conditions and provide care accordingly.
"Instead of hospitalizing all patients, we will put the focus on treating serious cases," Park said, adding that those with mild symptoms will be cared for at designated government facilities in each regions.
Calls have grown for more delicate, strategic approaches in caring for virus patients, as some of the patients have died at home while waiting to be hospitalized.
Since Feb. 23, when South Korea raised the virus alert level to "red," the country's highest alert, in the wake of a drastic surge in confirmed cases, the authorities have also been focusing on halting the spread of the virus in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, which have seen more than 87 percent of the total infections.
The number of confirmed cases is expected to continue to rise rapidly in the coming days as the authorities have begun testing members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus at the center of the rapid spread in other provinces.
The church has nearly 240,000 believers, and a majority of them had been tested for the virus as of Saturday, the KCDC said, noting that nearly 9,000 of them have shown symptoms.
Shincheonji's founder and leader Lee Man-hee is one of them, as he underwent the virus test on Saturday, and the result is expected to come in the coming days, according to the religious group.
Of the total 2,705 patients in Daegu -- at 2.5 million people, the country's fourth-largest city -- more than 60 percent are linked to Shincheonji, according to official data.
The KCDC said it has learned that some of the Shincheonji church members visited the China's central city of Wuhan in January, but did not reveal how many had been to the international epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak.
The Ministry of Justice said Saturday that 42 followers of the Shincheonji church are presumed to have entered the country from Wuhan over the past eight months.
"We know that Feb. 16 was the last day that this group had made massive contact with others," KCDC official Kwon Jun-wook told a press briefing. "One cycle of the virus incubation period has passed since, and we may have to deal with secondary virus infections through early March."
Kwon added that health authorities will reinforce the monitoring of facilities that could cause mass infections, such as medical institutions and schools.
Citing the group's failure to take proactive anti-virus measures and to provide accurate related data, the Seoul Metropolitan Government reported the case to the prosecution for investigation into alleged homicide, infliction of injury and violating regulations on preventing infections.
Also on Sunday, the authorities announced that a 45-day-old baby has been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, making the baby boy the youngest patient in South Korea. The baby, born on Jan. 15, tested positive for COVID-19 after his parents had contracted the virus, they said.
South Korea is carrying out tests on 33,360 people nationwide, while 61,825 people have tested negative in total.
The KCDC said it is currently working to secure coronavirus testing reagents after Swiss drugmaker Roche recently decided to supply more of its diagnostic reagent to China.
Health authorities said 14 patients are in critical condition. The number of patients cured of the disease stands at 30.
Meanwhile, as the number of virus cases soars here, many foreign countries have barred entry by those who have recently visited South Korea.
Earlier, the U.S. State Department raised its travel advisory for Daegu to the highest level, urging Americans not to travel to the virus-hit city. For the rest of South Korea, the U.S. advised its nationals to reconsider travel.
According to Seoul's foreign ministry, 81 countries have so far moved to bar the entry of people traveling from South Korea or to strengthen quarantine steps.