(ATTN: ADDS details in paras 15-16, last 6 paras, photo)
SEOUL, Dec. 14 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily new coronavirus cases fell back below 1,000 on Monday on fewer tests over the weekend after topping the 1,000 mark for the first time the previous day, with health authorities struggling to conduct more virus tests to rein in further spread.
The country added 718 more COVID-19 cases, including 682 local infections, raising the total caseload to 43,484, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
On Sunday, the country reported its largest daily caseload ever of 1,030 new coronavirus cases, setting yet another fresh high after reporting 950 cases Saturday.
Over the past weeks, the country has reported hundreds of daily new cases due to locally transmitted cases from the greater Seoul area, which houses around half of the nation's population.
Starting Monday, health authorities are providing free COVID-19 tests at 150 makeshift clinics in the wider Seoul area through Jan. 3, even to those who have not come into contact with patients, to keep track of asymptomatic patients.
People can also receive tests without providing personal information other than their mobile numbers.
South Korea had been touted as one of most successful countries in coping with COVID-19 despite ups and downs, maintaining most of its economic activities without a full lockdown.
After hitting the previous record of 909 on Feb. 29 due to cases traced to a minor church sect in Daegu, the daily figures were mostly in either two digits or below 400 before spiking since late November.
The country toughened social distancing measures, currently at Level 2.5, the second highest under the five-tier virus restrictions, last week, but the move has failed to curb a spike in new cases.
This week is anticipated to serve as a critical juncture for South Korea on whether it should adopt the highest level of its social distancing scheme, which can be implemented when locally transmitted cases surge to 800 to 1,000 or the daily tally doubles from the previous day.
Level 3 social distancing is less stringent than the lockdown measures adopted in the United States and Europe, but it is aimed at effectively minimizing social and business activities in a wide range of areas.
Any gatherings of 10 or more people will be banned under Level 3. All sports events will also be suspended, and schools can only offer online classes.
The Level 2.5 social distancing scheme allowed gatherings of less than 50 people and sports events without spectators.
Trains and express buses will also be obligated to fill only half of their seats. People are basically advised to stay at home as much as possible, and companies are required to have nonessential employees work from home.
South Korea, however, is cautious about adopting the highest level, as it will come at a great price in terms of the economy.
"The Level 3 social distancing scheme will become our last resort," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during a meeting Monday. "Raising the social distancing measure needs a careful review, and we also need to have a strong belief over its effectiveness and earn social consensus.
"For now, it is important that all people follow the enhanced anti-virus measures currently in force," he said, pointing out the country will not hesitate to make drastic decisions when necessary.
Of the locally transmitted cases, the capital city of Seoul accounted for 217 cases, and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province took up 220. Incheon, west of Seoul, had 36 new cases.
Outside of greater Seoul, the southeastern port city of Busan reported 19 additional cases, followed by the southeastern city of Daegu with 16, South Gyeongsang Province with 26 and South Chungcheong Province with 51.
A restaurant from central Seoul reported 275 patients as of Sunday. A total of 130 patients were also traced to a church in western Seoul.
Imported cases came to 36.
Among the imported cases, patients from Russia and Indonesia accounted for seven each. Six were from the United States, and four cases were traced to South Africa.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients came to 185, up six from the previous day.
The KDCA reported seven additional deaths, raising the total to 587.
The fatality rate reached 1.35 percent.
The number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries came to 288, raising the total to 32,102. This indicates around 74 percent of the patients reported here have been cured.
South Korea has carried out 3,397,039 COVID-19 tests so far, including 22,444 from the previous day. The country recently carried out more than 30,000 tests daily during weekdays.
Global vaccine hub push needs more tailored backing
S. Korean evacuation effort highlights will to never abandon Afghan friends
Skepticism grows over contradicting poll results in run-up to presidential election
(News Focus) America's chaotic exit from Afghanistan sows doubts over U.S. security commitment
After convictions of Optimus fund fraudsters, suspicions, damage still remain