(ATTN: ADDS updated info in lead, details in paras 5-8)
SEOUL, Feb. 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported 52 new cases of the new coronavirus Friday, bringing the total number of infections in the nation to 156, with the potentially fatal illness spreading fast across the country.
The number of COVID-19 infections here has almost tripled in just three days, with most new infections traced to church services in the southeastern city of Daegu.
Of the 52 new cases, 41 are in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and the neighboring North Gyeongsang Province. Another three were reported in Seoul, the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said in a statement.
The spike of infections in Daegu and several cases in Seoul, where routes of infections are not immediately traceable, have prompted health officials to declare that COVID-19 has begun spreading locally.
The KCDC said two new cases were reported in South Gyeongsang Province. In a sign that the virus may broadly spread nationwide, six provinces, including Gyeonggi, Jeju, Chungcheong and North Jolla, each reported one case.
Of the 52 new cases, 39 are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, where the 31st patient, the country's probable "super spreader," attended worship services, the KCDC said.
A 61-year-old South Korean woman, who tested positive for the virus earlier this week, attended worship services at the church on Feb. 9 and this past Sunday.
KCDC Director Jung Eun-kyeong told reporters Thursday that the agency is uncertain whether the woman, known as the 31st patient, was a "super spreader" of the virus but asked 1,001 members of the church to self-isolate to stem the spread of the virus.
The government decided to designate Daegu and neighboring Cheongdo as "special management zones," following the spike in the number of infected people and the nation's first death from the virus.