(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 11-14; ADDS photo)
SEOUL, Dec. 10 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new virus cases approached 700 for the second straight day on Thursday as new infections continued to pile up beyond the greater Seoul area, further putting health authorities on edge.
The country reported 682 new virus cases, including 646 domestically transmitted ones, raising the total caseload to 40,098, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Of the 682 new virus cases, 489 were reported in the greater Seoul area that covers Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, just west of Seoul.
The figure showed a slight decrease from 686 the previous day, but it hit the third-highest mark since January, when the country's first case was reported.
The number of confirmed cases hit a record high of 909 on Feb. 29. and the second-highest mark on Wednesday.
Eight additional coronavirus deaths were reported, raising the death toll to 564.
As the virus infections continued to rise, health authorities urged people to thoroughly follow the enhanced social distancing guidelines under the second-strongest virus curbs in the greater Seoul area, which have been in place since Tuesday.
"In the current situation, the capacity of disinfection and health systems is at risk of reaching the limit down the road," Health Minister Park Neunghoo said at a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.
More than 3,000 new infections were identified across the country over the past week as the greater Seoul area was a hotbed of the current wave of the pandemic, reporting record highs of new virus cases, Park said.
Health authorities will bring all our available resources to bear upon the task to put the virus spread under control, he said.
Health authorities said 506 COVID-19 patients were unable to be taken to hospitals due to bed shortages in the greater Seoul area as of Wednesday.
In relation to the executive order signed Tuesday by President Donald Trump that prioritizes vaccinating Americans, "Vaccines developed by AstraZeneca are expected to be less affected by the U.S. executive order as they are slated to be produced in South Korea," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health official, said during the briefing.
He also said it remains to be seen the effect the order will have as it is not yet fully known.
The country's health ministry said Tuesday it secured early access to COVID-19 vaccines developed by four pharmaceutical companies -- AstraZeneca Inc., Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson's Janssen and Moderna -- for 34 million people. The ministry has signed a deal to buy vaccines for 1 million people with AstraZeneca.
Under the new guidelines issued by health authorities Wednesday, anyone can take a virus test free of charge at screening centers under Level 2 or higher, or if a separate notice is issued, regardless of whether they have any symptoms of the coronavirus.
In addition, health authorities decided to increase the number of residential treatment centers and clinics fully dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients to brace for a possible shortage of hospital beds.
By region, 251 confirmed cases were reported in Seoul and 201 from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. Incheon, west of Seoul, added 37 more cases. The greater Seoul area is home to about half of the country's 51.6 million population.
The number of imported cases reached 36, up from 24 the previous day. They include 19 from the United States and seven from Europe.
The number of COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms across the country amounted to 172, up from 149 on Wednesday.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries came to 30,637, up 460 from Wednesday.
Japanese Embassy sends back Moon's New Year gift over Dokdo image box
(LEAD) Daily cases bounce to over 7,000 for 1st time in month amid omicron woes
Auto exports up 8.6 pct in 2021 on popularity of eco-friendly cars
Moon holds phone talks with Abu Dhabi crown prince, voices condolences over attack victims
23 shippers fined 96.2 bln won for collusion on freight rates
U.S., 7 other nations urge full implementation of N. Korea sanctions
'Kim Ji-young, Born 1982,' most-sold S. Korean literary book overseas
(3rd LD) N. Korea says it confirmed accuracy of tactical guided missiles in test-firing
(LEAD) Daily cases jump to over 5,000 for 1st time in 20 days amid omicron woes
(LEAD) Moon calls for swift shift to new response measures to cope with omicron
(LEAD) New COVID-19 cases above 7,000 for 3rd day amid persistent omicron fears
New COVID-19 cases above 7,000 for 3rd day amid persistent omicron fears
S. Korea to restore gateway of ancient Egyptian temple in Luxor
Biz hour curbs cause largest drop in in-person spending among all measures: BOK report