(ATTN: ADDS details throughout; CHANGES photos)
SEOUL, Dec. 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new coronavirus cases hovered above 500 for the second consecutive day Thursday as locally transmitted cases continued to pile up across the country, further raising concerns over a bigger wave of the pandemic in the winter season.
The country added 540 more COVID-19 cases, including 516 local infections, raising the total caseload to 35,703, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). The capital city of Seoul accounted for 260 of the total.
The daily caseload marks the highest since 569 reported on Friday last week.
South Korea reported more than 500 daily new infections for three consecutive days through Saturday last week, before falling back to 450 cases on Sunday due to less testing over the weekend.
Thursday's virus uptick came as around 490,000 high school seniors, graduates and others took the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT).
Health authorities believe that this week will serve as a critical juncture for the nation's anti-virus fight. Should the virus curve not flatten, the country may have to further raise the level of its social distancing scheme.
South Korea adopted the Level 2 social distancing scheme in the greater Seoul area on Nov. 24 amid concerns over the growing number of patients in the region that houses around half of the nation's population.
The country operates a five-tier social distancing system. Under the second level, 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.
With no signs of a letup, however, the country decided to add more restrictions to Level 2 starting this month, which banned the operation of sauna and indoor sports facilities. Hotels are also restricted from holding year-end parties.
South Korea can adopt Level 2.5 when the daily average number of cases hovers between 400 and 500 for a week.
The country already meets the threshold as daily new virus cases topped 450 in the past week.
Areas other than greater Seoul are currently under relatively moderate Level 1.5, although individual cities can adopt tougher measures depending on their situations. Gwangju, located 330 kilometers south of Seoul, has adopted Level 2, along with Chuncheon of Gangwon Province.
"With no clear signs of a slowdown in the number of new patients, the enhanced measure in the greater Seoul area is likely to be extended into next week as well," Sohn Young-rae, a senior health official said. The scheme was originally planned to run through Monday.
"We also need to wait until the weekend to assess the impact of the Level 2 social distancing scheme," he added.
Along with 260 cases reported from Seoul, 137 cases were from Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital. Incheon, located west of Seoul, added 22 more infections.
The southeastern port city of Busan reported 15 cases, while its surrounding South Gyeongsang Province added 13 infections.
North Gyeongsang Province accounted for 19, and South Chungcheong Province had 13 more patients.
The central city of Daejeon added seven more, while its neighboring Sejong saw four more cases.
As of Wednesday, a cram school located in southern Seoul reported 18 patients, and a call center located in the same district added nine cases.
An online shopping business from western Seoul saw 18 COVID-19 cases, and a chemical firm located in Cheongju, 137 kilometers south of Seoul, reported eight cases.
The country added 24 imported cases.
Of the imported cases, the United States accounted for nine, followed by Russia with five and Italy with two.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients came to 117, up 16 from the previous day.
South Korea reported three additional deaths, raising the total to 529.
The fatality rate came to 1.48 percent.
The number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 28,352, up 287 from a day earlier. This translates into around 79 percent of the virus patients here being cured.
South Korea has carried out 3,131,886 COVID-19 tests so far, including 24,916 from the previous day.
N.K. leader declares victory in fight against COVID-19: state media
DP slams Yoon's absence during record rainfall
S. Korea expresses deep regret over Japanese PM's offering to war shrine
(2nd LD) Samsung heir Lee granted special presidential pardon
DP slams Yoon's absence during record rainfall
(LEAD) China says S. Korea has vowed to limit THAAD operation, heralding continued diplomatic row
S. Korea, U.S. to stage preparatory military drills before major field exercise
(LEAD) Bill Gates calls for S. Korea to play leading role in global health cooperation
(LEAD) Gov't to supply 2.7 mln homes in next 5 years