SEOUL: South Korea confirmed 70 more COVID-19 cases on Monday (Feb 24) afternoon, bringing its total tally to 833, by far the largest national total outside China.
The updated figures on the website of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) brought the country's daily increase to 231, its highest to date.
Two more people have died on Monday from the coronavirus, taking the death toll to seven.
A total of 161 new cases were announced on Monday morning. Of the new cases, 115 were linked to a church in the southeastern city of Daegu after a 61-year-old woman known as "Patient 31" who attended services there tested positive, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
KCDC also reported that the seventh death from the virus was a 62-year-old man from a hospital in Cheongdo - a county that saw surges in confirmed cases along with nearby Daegu in recent weeks.
Authorities are still investigating the exact cause of the new outbreak, with Patient 31 having no recent record of overseas travel.
President Moon Jae-in on Sunday said that the government "will raise the alert level to the highest level of 'grave' according to experts' recommendations and drastically strengthen our response system."
He also urged officials not to hesitate from taking "unprecedented powerful measures" to contain the outbreak.
READ: Singaporeans advised to defer non-essential travel to South Korean cities affected by COVID-19 - MOH
South Korea has seen a rapid surge in the number of coronavirus cases in recent days after a cluster of infections emerged from a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu last week.
The escalation in the alert level allows the government to send extra resources to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, which were designated "special care zones" on Friday.
The alert level also enables the government to forcibly prevent public activities and order the temporary closure of schools, the health ministry said, though it gave few details of immediate measures.
The outbreak has forced South Korean tech giant Samsung Electronics to suspend operations at its smartphone plant in Gumi, 200km southeast of Seoul, after one of its employees was infected at the weekend.
The Gumi plant manufactures high-end products for the domestic market, including Samsung's latest Galaxy S20 and luxury Galaxy Z Flip models.
The Shincheonji cluster began with a 61-year-old woman who developed a fever on Feb 10 and attended at least four services in Daegu - South Korea's fourth-biggest city, with a population of 2.5 million - before being diagnosed.
Daegu mayor Kwon Young-jin said 85 per cent of the city's 292 cases were linked to Shincheonji.
Authorities say some 9,300 Shincheonji members in Daegu have either been quarantined or have been asked to stay at home, but hundreds have still yet to be reached.
Shincheonji, often accused of being a cult, claims its founder has donned the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on judgement day.
But with more church members than available places in heaven, they are said to have to compete for slots and pursue converts.
In a video statement read out by its spokesman on Sunday, Shincheonji apologised for "causing concern", but insisted it was cooperating with health authorities for the "early cessation" of the situation.
The spokesman rejected public criticism blaming his church over the spike in the number of infections, noting the virus had broken out in China.
"Please be aware that the Shincheonji Church of Jesus and its members are the biggest victims of the COVID-19," he said.