SEOUL, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Cases of COVID-19 spiked again in South Korea on Monday, with 277 new patients reported by the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raising the country's total to 833.
The death toll for the infectious disease, caused by the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, rose to seven, with two new cases reported on Monday.
The majority of patients are centered in the southeastern city of Daegu and its surrounding areas, with roughly 60 percent of cases clustered around a secretive church and 15 percent more connected to a hospital in neighboring Cheongdo county.
On Sunday, South Korea raised its virus alert system to "red," its highest level, with President Moon Jae-in saying the COVID-19 outbreak has reached a "grave turning point" and warning that the next few days would be crucial in combating the spread of the illness.
South Korea now has the second-highest number of cases in the world outside China.
On Monday, Vice Health and Welfare Minister Kim Gang-lip warned that if the COVID-19 outbreak is not contained within Daegu, South Korea's fourth-largest city, it could soon spread around the country of 51 million people.
"If authorities fail to contain the spread of the COVID-19 in Daegu, there is a high possibility that COVID-19 could spread nationwide," he told reporters, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap.
Health officials will test some 28,000 Daegu residents who are exhibiting flu-like symptoms, Kim said.
Workers are also screening around 9,000 followers of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where a 61-year-old woman who is considered a "super-spreader" of the virus attended services before and after exhibiting symptoms.
Health officials advised the woman to be tested at least twice after coming down with symptoms, health authorities said, but she refused until finally feeling sick enough to check into a clinic for the test Feb. 17. She was confirmed as South Korea's 31st COVID-19 patient on Tuesday.
In an online announcement Sunday, the Shincheonji church said it has shut down its 1,100 churches and buildings nationwide and canceled all services and meetings. On its website, the church also denied criticism that it has not been fully cooperating with health authorities.
However, many observers say the church's secretive nature and mistrust of outsiders likely played a role in the spread of the disease.
"Members are drilled to lie about membership and activities," Peter Daley, a Seoul-based researcher on Korean cults, told UPI, adding that large gatherings with close personal contact are the norm for the group's services.
Authorities said Sunday they are still attempting to track down around 600 church members who have not been reachable.
Public backlash has grown against the Shincheonji church, with an online petition on the presidential Blue House website demanding that government forcibly dissolve the sect receiving over 550,000 signatures by Monday evening.
The KCDC announced Monday new COVID-19 prevention guidelines in accordance with the heightened alert level.
In a statement, the KCDC said pregnant women, senior citizens and those with chronic illnesses should avoid crowded areas and wear masks when outside or visiting medical institutions. It also advised that those with fevers or respiratory symptoms to refrain from going to school or work.
Nationwide, school holidays have been extended due to the crisis and many large-scale gatherings are being canceled. A session at the country's National Assembly was called off on Monday after a COVID-19-infected patient was found to have participated at an event in the building last week.
Seoul's city government has also stepped up efforts to contain the spread of the disease in the nation's capital, staggering work schedules for municipal employees, increasing inspections and banning rallies at three large public squares.
A group of thousands of conservative Christian activists who regularly hold demonstrations against Moon defied the ban on Saturday, however. Moon on Monday called the COVID-19 outbreak an "unusual emergency" and said at a briefing with aides that the government may need to release a supplementary budget to help ward off the economic fallout from the outbreak.
"The government should make special prescriptions for extraordinary economic times," he said.