(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 4, 12-14, 19; ADDS photo)
SEOUL, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) -- The daily number of new coronavirus cases bounced back to over 600 on Sunday as authorities are considering raising social distancing measures to curb the relentless surge in COVID-19 transmissions.
The country added 631 more COVID-19 cases, including 599 local infections, raising the total caseload to 37,546, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). Five additional coronavirus fatalities were reported, bringing the total to 545.
The number of daily patients was up 48 from 583 on Saturday when it briefly fell below 500 a day after hitting a nine-month high the previous day. Sunday's figure is the highest during the third wave of the pandemic that began last month and the highest since the first wave peaked in February and early March.
Nationwide, the percentage of people testing positive for the virus was 4.39 percent Sunday, up 1.86 percentage points from 2.53 percent the day before.
The resurgence should be taken far more seriously considering that there are fewer people tested on weekends, according to health officials.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun will convene a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters later in the day to discuss whether to boost the social distancing measures by one notch nationwide.
The government has been considering raising the measures to Level 2.5, the second highest in the five-tier system, in the greater Seoul area encompassing Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province and to Level 2 in other areas later as the recently raised social distancing measures are considered ineffective.
The country's social distancing level was pushed up to Level 2 in the greater Seoul area about two weeks ago, which includes the suspension of entertainment facilities, such as nightclubs. Starting Tuesday for one week, the authorities implemented additional restrictions on saunas, aerobic centers and similar facilities where COVID-19 could easily be spread.
Despite the toughened social distancing steps, new coronavirus cases have skyrocketed, especially in the greater Seoul area, putting health officials on edge.
Under Level 2.5, gatherings with 50 or more people are prohibited, while door-to-door sales businesses, karaoke rooms and indoor concert venues that offer standing shows in addition to nightclubs and bars that allow dancing will be forced to close. Restaurants cannot receive customers after 9 p.m. but can offer takeout and delivery. Cafes are only allowed to serve takeout at all hours. Internet cafes, theaters, private academies and study halls cannot operate past 9 p.m. while the measures suspend operation of all indoor fitness facilities at all hours. Class sizes at schools are restricted to one-third capacity.
The nighttime curfew for restaurants, cafes and other multiuse facilities has already been in place in Seoul since Saturday, a day after the metropolitan government announced the measures to preemptively curb the soaring infections in the capital area. The city's public transportation service was also reduced by 30 percent.
The recent surge in COVID-19 patients is quickly depleting hospital beds for critical cases, according to health officials.
Of a total of 550 beds across the country, only 55, or 10 percent, are available now, including 20 in the greater Seoul area. All beds are occupied in Daejeon, North Jeolla, South Chungcheong and South Jeolla provinces, they said.
The number of COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms across the country reached 125, up from 121 on Saturday.
Of the additional locally transmitted cases, 253 were reported from Seoul and 176 from the surrounding Gyeonngi Province. Incheon, just west of Seoul, added 41 more cases. The greater Seoul area is home to about half of the country's 51.6 million population.
The accumulated number of confirmed COVID-19 patients in Seoul topped 10,000 as over a thousand new cases were reported for the past four days.
Seoul reported a total of 254 new daily cases, including one imported case, bringing the total to 10,205 as of the start of Sunday. The daily figure is the third largest since the outbreak began in January.
Gyeonggi Province recorded the highest single-day rise of 184 to raise its total caseload to 8,159.
A rise in community cases in greater Seoul was a main reason for the surge in new virus cases. In Seoul, confirmed cases were reported at a sauna, a musical practice room and restaurants, with Gyeonggi Province reporting new cases in a nursing home and a university hospital.
The number of imported cases came to 32, up from 24 the previous day. They include 12 from the United States, eight from Russia, and two each from India and Germany.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 29,128, up 211 from Saturday.
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