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SEOUL, June 22 (Yonhap) -- The Seoul metropolitan area is already in the second round of the new coronavirus outbreak, health authorities said Monday, warning that South Korea should prepare for a protracted virus fight as the pandemic is widely expected to continue through the summer.
The country added 17 new cases, including 11 local infections, raising the total caseload to 12,438, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). The newly added daily cases marks the lowest in almost a month due mainly to less testing over the weekend.
This was the first time since May 26 that the number of new daily COVID-19 cases fell below 20. It also marks a sharp drop from 67 cases Saturday and 48 cases Sunday.
KCDC chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said she believes that the second round of virus outbreak is in progress in the capital and its vicinity after the first wave of virus outbreak between February and March.
After peaking at over 900 cases a day in late February, the country's virus curve flattened due to massive testing and contact tracing, as well as strict social distancing.
But the country saw a steady rise in new infections in early May due to a large-scale cluster infection tied to a nightlife district of Itaewon, as well as a distribution center just west of Seoul.
The second wave of COVID-19 apparently started from sporadic cluster infections in the Seoul metropolitan area in early May, Jeong added.
"We originally predicted that the second wave to emerge in fall or winter," Jeong said. "Our forecast turned out to be wrong. As long as people having close contact with others, we believe that infections will continue."
Of the locally transmitted cases, seven were reported in the densely populated Seoul and nearby metropolitan areas, where around half of the country's 50-million population lives.
The Seoul metropolitan area accounted for most of the newly added virus cases this month, with cluster outbreaks at churches and door-to-door business establishments.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said the nation's capital may have to return to strict social distancing if the city's cases for the next three days top 30 on average and the bed occupancy rate of the city's hospitals exceeds 70 percent, a level that is considered burdensome for the public health system.
The daily virus infections in Seoul stood at 17.9 as of Friday this month, a sharp rise from 7.4 in May and 5.2 in April, according to the Seoul city.
The country has also seen infections outside of the capital region. Two cases were reported in South Chungcheong Province and one identified in Daegu and North Jeolla Province each, raising concerns of further community spread outside Seoul.
The country reported six additional imported cases, raising the total number of such cases to 1,441.
Imported cases have emerged as a new concern in recent days. The country reported 31 such cases Saturday, the biggest spike in more than two months.
In a bid to stem inflows of COVID-19 into the country, health authorities will limit the entry from some countries where virus infections persist via restrictions on flight services and visa issuance starting Tuesday.
Over the past week, a total of 90 imported cases were identified here, almost doubling from the previous week's 48.
The government will designate door-to-door businesses, logistics distribution centers, large private tutoring institutions and buffet restaurants as "high infection-risk facilities" also Tuesday, and they will be required to carry out stricter virus prevention measures.
Health authorities will look into unreported, unregistered door-to-door business establishments by July 5 and vowed mete out strong penalties should they violate quarantine guidelines.
So far, cases linked to door-to-door businesses have reached 254, with 205 of them detected in the greater Seoul area, according to the KCDC. Of the total, 140 were patients aged 60 or older.
To secure more hospitals beds, health authorities said they are planning to revise guidelines on patient treatment this week. Those showing minor symptoms may be headed directly to so-called treatment centers instead of going to hospitals.
In early May, the country eased its strict social distancing due to the flattened virus curve. The number of new daily cases peaked in late February at more than 900.
But a series of sporadic cluster infections in the Seoul area soon emerged, putting great strains on the country's virus fight.
Health authorities imposed tougher infection preventive measures in the region in late May for two weeks, which were later extended indefinitely as cluster infections.
Health authorities said the country may reinstate strict distancing in daily life if the number of new cases does not fall back to single digits.
There were no additional deaths, keeping the total death toll to 280.
The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 10,881, up 13 from the previous day, with 1,277 patients currently under treatment, according to the KCDC.
With the nation facing a hot spell this week, the KCDC recommended people limit outdoor activities and not wear masks outside if they can keep a 2-meter distance from other people.
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