(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead, 2nd para; UPDATES with more info in paras 8, 22)
SEOUL, Dec. 10 (Yonhap) -- The third wave of the pandemic currently in progress in South Korea will be bigger than previous ones and long-lasting, health authorities warned on Thursday, as the number of new coronavirus cases neared 700 for the second straight day.
Health authorities said they will expand virus tests in the greater Seoul area from Monday over the next three weeks to curb the virus flare-ups in the densely populated area.
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.
About 150 temporary screening centers will be set up in the Seoul metropolitan area, the authorities said, adding that the current wave of virus infections is the longest and largest wave since January, when the first confirmed case was reported here.
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.
In particular, 10 percent of people aged over 60 who were infected developed serious symptoms, health authorities said, advising those in their 60s or older to be careful not to catch the virus.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries came to 30,637, up 460 from Wednesday.