SEOUL, Aug. 14 (UPI) -- Locally transmitted COVID-19 cases in South Korea have reached their highest level since late March, prompting officials to consider stricter measures to contain the spread.
Most of the 85 new local cases were concentrated in the Seoul metropolitan region across a number of different locations, health officials said Friday. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported more than a dozen new imported cases.
"We are witnessing continued transmissions at various venues including churches, large market buildings, schools and fast-food restaurants," said Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip at a press briefing on Friday. "We are very concerned about the current situation."
Kim called the local clusters "grave situations" and said they were a "big hurdle to the government's efforts to contain the virus."
Cases tied to a church in Yongin, south of Seoul, jumped to 72, an increase of 60 from the day before. At least 34 cases so far have been traced to a church in Goyang, a satellite city just north of Seoul, while the Seoul city government ordered the closure of a church where cases jumped by 14 to 19.
Lotteria, a fast-food franchise in Seoul, has been tied to 15 cases, and infections have also been reported among vendors at Seoul's crowded Namdaemun and Dongdaemun traditional markets.
South Korea has been operating under relaxed distancing guidelines in recent months, with students back in schools and sports fans allowed to return to live events in increasing numbers.
However, Kim cautioned that the government may decide to tighten its social distancing protocols in the wake of the rising infections.
"The government is reviewing the option of increasing social distancing measures to Level 2 in the [Seoul] metropolitan area," he said.
South Korea adopted a three-tier distancing plan in June. If the government goes to Level 2, all indoor gatherings of 50 or more people and all outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people will be banned. At Level 3, gatherings of 10 or more people will be banned and students will be prohibited from attending schools.
Health officials have expressed concern about the virus spreading via travel and rallies over the upcoming three-day weekend, as South Korea celebrates its National Liberation Day holiday on Saturday, marking the end of Japanese occupation of the country in 1945.
Seoul city government on Thursday issued an administrative order banning mass rallies that had been planned by a variety of groups for Liberation Day, citing concerns over coronavirus transmission.
Friday's spike in local cases marked the highest number of infections since March 31 and followed days of rising figures, with 47 local cases reported on Thursday and 35 the day before.
The overall daily tally of 103 cases marked the first time South Korea passed the triple-digit infection mark since July 25, when 113 cases were reported, driven by a sharp rise in infections from Korean nationals returning from Iraq and sailors aboard a Russian vessel.
South Korea's total number of COVID-19 cases rose to 14,873 on Friday, while deaths remained at 305.