By Josh Smith

SEOUL, March 16 (Reuters) – South Korea reported 74 new coronavirus infections on Monday, slightly lower than the previous day, health officials said, taking the tally of cases to 8,236, with 75 deaths.

New infections have been on a declining trajectory, with the latest figures well below a Feb. 29 peak of 909, and slightly down from 76 on Sunday, but media said South Korea uncovered the second largest cluster in the area near its capital.

As many as 303 more patients have been released after a full recovery, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, for a total of 1,137 who have gone home.

“For three straight days we have seen more numbers of discharged than newly confirmed, but we should not forget the lessons we’ve learned,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a briefing.

Officials warned that “sporadic outbreaks” continued in the hardest-hit areas, such as the southeastern city of Daegu.

The new outbreaks were from unknown sources in other cities, Kim said, adding, “This implies the coronavirus is spreading across the country.”

One new cluster surfaced in Seongnam city south of Seoul, the capital, where at least 40 members of a Protestant church tested positive, including the pastor, after services on March 1 and March 8, despite government calls to cancel mass gatherings.

Six more people who came in contact with infected church members also tested positive, said Yonhap news agency, making the cluster the second largest in the Seoul area.

Kim urged people to avoid mass gatherings and adopt “social distancing” measures to stifle infections.

“We should not let our guard down,” he added.

New steps to prevent new infections target visitors arriving from countries with major outbreaks, he said.

This week, South Korea adopted tougher border checks for visitors from Europe, similar to its rules for travellers from China and Iran.

On Sunday, it classified the worst-hit provinces as “special disaster zones”, allowing the government to subsidise up to half of restoration expenses and exempt residents from taxes and utility payments. (Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Clarence Fernandez)

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