SEOUL, Dec. 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new coronavirus cases spiked by more than 1,000 for the fifth straight day to hit a fresh record high Sunday, putting the country's virus battle in the most trouble so far amid rising death tolls.
The country added 1,097 more COVID-19 cases, including 1,072 local infections, raising the total caseload to 49,665, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The tally marked a rise from 1,053 cases Saturday and 1,062 Friday. The previous record high was reported at 1,078 on Wednesday.
The country is mulling whether to raise its social distancing guidelines to Level 3, the highest in its five-tier scheme, as the recent virus tally has already met criteria for the level.
Level 3 can be adopted when locally transmitted cases hover between 800 and 1,000 for a week or the daily tally doubles from the previous day.
Chains of cluster infections at facilities that include nursing homes and churches, and through private gatherings, continued to pop up. At least 185 cases were reported at a major correctional facility in eastern Seoul.
But health authorities said they are aiming to contain the current wave of the pandemic without raising virus curbs to Level 3 on concerns over impacts on the economy.
If the toughest curbs are imposed, more than 2 million shops and facilities will be ordered to be shut down.
South Korea has been applying Level 2.5 social distancing rules in the greater Seoul area, home to half of its 51.6 million population, and Level 2 rules in the rest of the country.
A relentless spike in virus cases spawned concerns about a shortage of hospital beds and a rise in fatalities. Health authorities issued a rare order to private hospitals Friday to secure more intensive-care beds for COVID-19 patients.
Of the newly identified local infections, 470 cases were reported in Seoul and 244 cases in Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital. Incheon, west of Seoul, reported 62 more cases.
Other municipalities reported new infections, with the country's largest port city of Busan adding 33 cases and South Gyeongsang Province reporting 49 new cases.
The country, meanwhile, added 25 imported cases, increasing the total to 5,082. Six cases came from the United States, followed by three each from Indonesia, Poland, Russia and Mexico.
South Korea reported 15 additional deaths, raising the death toll to 674. The fatality rate was 1.36 percent.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients reached 278, up three from the previous day.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 34,722, up 388 from the previous day.
The country has carried out 3,683,094 coronavirus tests, including 36,847 tests on Saturday, since Jan. 3.
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