(ATTN: UPDATES with more details, comments in paras 16-17, 23-24, 26,28; CHANGES photo)
SEOUL, Nov. 24 (Yonhap) -- The number of new coronavirus cases in South Korea bounced back to over 300 on Tuesday due to a pileup of sporadic infections across the nation, with tougher antivirus rules in place in the greater Seoul area amid a virus resurgence.
The country added 349 more COVID-19 cases, including 320 local infections, raising the total caseload to 31,353, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The latest figure was sharply up from 271 on Monday, when the comparable reading fell back below to 300 for the first time in six days due to less testing on the weekend.
The daily caseload has stayed in the triple digits since Nov. 8, with the figure over 300 from Nov. 18-22.
Health authorities warned a third wave of the pandemic is under way due to cluster infections from private gatherings, public facilities, hospitals and the military, calling for stronger action before a nationwide college exam in early December.
Authorities said infections from gatherings of family and friends accounted for about 60 percent of total cases, making it harder for them to contain COVID-19 in winter, which is more favorable to the spread of the virus.
"Infections among people younger than 40 years old have been on the rise, as many of them do not show special symptoms and carry out lots of activities, adding woes to antivirus efforts already hamstrung by the cold weather," Second Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae said in a meeting with senior health officials.
"To break the chain infections and prevent a nationwide pandemic, people should minimize contact with others in their daily lives."
The recent surge of the virus prompted authorities to raise the social distancing level by one notch to Level 2, the third highest in the five-tier system, in the Seoul metropolitan area for two weeks starting Tuesday.
The latest measure comes five days after Seoul raised distancing by one notch to Level 1.5 to urge people and business owners to take extra precautions.
Under Level 2, nightclubs and other high-risk entertainment facilities must suspend their business, while wedding and funeral halls should restrict visitor numbers to a maximum of 100.
Cafes should offer only takeout and delivery services, and restaurants are banned from serving food after 9 p.m.
Indoor sports facilities are required to halt their operations after 9 p.m., and public facilities will need to meet an admissions cap of 30 percent.
Sports events should have only 10 percent of their maximum capacity.
North and South Jeolla provinces began adopting Level 1.5 distancing, while other small cities and counties across the nation have already enforced tougher distancing rules in accordance with the recent rise in new cases.
The average daily number of local infections reached nearly 300 over the past week, and many of the cases were from gatherings of family and friends, where many of them were likely to take off masks, KDCA Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook said.
Among them, cluster infections accounted for 41 from Nov. 8-14, about doubling from a month ago, Kwon said.
Authorities said the upward trend in new cases will continue this week, expecting the effect of tougher distancing guidelines as early as next week.
As the Seoul metropolitan area is the main source of recent infections, upping the distancing level on a national scale will not be considered, they noted.
Of the locally transmitted cases, 206 were identified in the capital area, home to nearly half of the nation's population.
The capital region registered over 200 virus cases for the fifth straight day.
Seoul added 132 more cases, while the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and western port city of Incheon reported 69 and 16 cases, respectively.
An additional 23 people tested positive in cases traced to a high school in eastern Seoul and a church in western Seoul, raising the total to 99. A cram school in southwestern Seoul added three more cases to reach 88.
An indoor playground for children in Yongin, south of Seoul, were traced to 19 more cases, bringing the total to 73.
Most major cities and municipalities have reported new infections.
Gangwon Province registered 45 new cases. Among them, three new infections were connected to an Army unit in the border town of Cheorwon, which has reported a total of 44 cases.
North Jeolla Province reported 14 new patients, and North Gyeongsang Province had nine more.
The number of new imported cases came to 29, up from 16 the previous day. Eleven were from the United States, four were from Russia, and three were from Poland.
The country reported one additional death from COVID-19, raising the total to 510. The fatality rate was 1.63 percent.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients came to 79.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 26,722, up 183 from the previous day.
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