(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 10-13; ADDS photo)
SEOUL, Dec. 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new virus cases fell back slightly to below 600 on Tuesday as tougher virus restrictions in the greater Seoul and other areas began to be implemented. But health authorities still remain on utmost alert over a further spike in virus cases tied to a slew of cluster infections.
The country reported 594 new virus cases, including 566 domestically transmitted ones as of midnight Monday, raising the total caseload to 38,755, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Tuesday's daily tally marks a slight fall from 615 the previous day and 631 on Sunday. Three additional coronavirus deaths were reported, taking the total to 552.
The social distancing Level 2.5, the second-highest level under the five-tier scheme, went into effect Tuesday in the greater Seoul area covering Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, west of Seoul.
In addition, the Seoul city government decided last Saturday to reduce the city's public transportation service by 30 percent after 9 p.m.
In other areas, the third-highest social distancing, Level 2, was imposed. The new restrictions will be effective till Dec. 28.
Health officials have warned of the wider pandemic, predicting that the daily virus cases may near 1,000 next week unless the current spread of the new virus is brought under control.
In a bid to tackle the soaring number of new infections, health authorities plan to adopt a quick and accurate epidemiologic investigation by increasing the number of agents and introduce a saliva test.
It will also ease the criteria to release patients from quarantine by reducing the period of isolation to 10 days from 13 days to prevent hospital bed shortages.
"The number of confirmed cases is not showing signs of a slowdown, hovering around the 600 range," Kang Do-tae, a senior official, said at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, adding untraceable confirmed cases accounted for 26 percent of the total.
The ratio of confirmed cases to people taking virus tests rose to the 4 percent range this month from the 1 percent range seen in October and November, he said.
If the three-week restrictions fail to curb the virus spread, the wider wave of the pandemic in the greater Seoul will engulf the entire country, Kang said.
Along with the tough warning, the country's health ministry said it secured early access of COVID-19 vaccines developed by four pharmaceutical companies -- AstraZeneca Inc., Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson's Janssen and Moderna -- and from a global vaccine project for 44 million people.
Under the Level 2.5 social distancing guidelines, gatherings with 50 or more people are banned, while door-to-door sales businesses, karaoke rooms, indoor sports facilities and indoor concert venues that offer standing shows will be forced to close, in addition to nightclubs and bars.
Restaurants cannot receive customers after 9 p.m. but can offer takeout and delivery. Cafes are only allowed to serve takeout at all hours.
Movie theaters, internet cafes, private academies, study halls, amusement parks, beauty salons, barber shops, large grocery stores and department stores cannot operate past 9 p.m. Sports events are allowed without spectators while religious services are only available online or via broadcasts. In-person religious activities, if needed, are permitted with 20 or fewer participants.
By region, 212 confirmed cases were reported in Seoul and 146 from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. Incheon, west of Seoul, added 27 more cases. The greater Seoul area is home to about half of the country's 51.6 million population.
The number of imported cases came to 28, down from 35 the previous day. They include 17 from the United States and one from Europe.
The number of COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms across the country reached 134, up from 126 on Monday.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 29,650, up 349 from Monday.
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