(ATTN: UPDATES in paras 13-14, 18-19; ADDS photo)
SEOUL, Jan. 2 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily new coronavirus cases fell below 900 on Saturday, largely due to less testing over the New Year's Day holiday, as health authorities kept tight vigilance with the extension of the current social distancing rules.
The country added 824 more COVID-19 cases, including 788 local infections, raising the total caseload to 62,593, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). It reported 25 additional deaths from COVID-19, raising the death toll to 942.
The latest infection count marked a decrease from 1,029 cases Friday. The country logged 807 cases Monday, 1,045 cases Tuesday, 1,050 cases Wednesday and 967 cases Thursday. Over the past seven days, the daily tallies have hovered around 1,000.
The drop in new cases appears attributable to less testing. On Friday, 53,540 people received COVID-19 tests, compared with 101,176 on Thursday.
The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters decided to extend the current Level 2.5 distancing measures -- the second highest in the five-tier scheme -- for the greater Seoul area and Level 2 for the rest of the country until Jan. 17.
South Korea also decided to apply the ban to private gatherings of five or more people, which has been in place for the greater Seoul area, to the rest of the country.
The authorities opted not to raise distancing to the highest level in consideration of its impact on the local economy, as the single-day virus tallies have hovered around 1,000 without a sudden upsurge -- an apparent sign that social distancing efforts are paying off.
"In consideration of the fact that we have maintained our quarantine and medical response capabilities as of yet, and in consideration of the potential shock to the economy, we will not raise the scheme to Level 3, which involves a ban on the operation of facilities used by many people," Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol told a press briefing.
The authorities struggled to avoid resorting to the most stringent distancing level, which would mean serious restrictions on millions of small merchants and other businesses.
Even under Level 2.5, eateries and other shops have felt the pinch of social distancing. Restaurants can operate normally only until 9 p.m., after which, only takeout or delivery services are allowed, while cafes can only sell takeout beverages.
Kwon stressed that the country is facing a "very crucial turning point" that will determine whether virus cases will continue to surge or slow down, as he called for citizens to faithfully practice social distancing.
"The two weeks ahead will be a period during which we can solidify our antivirus campaign and reduce the number of patients," he said.
The latest single-day tally included 36 imported cases. Among them, the authorities confirmed four more cases of a highly transmissible COVID-19 variant from Britain, bringing the total to nine.
South Korea also reported its first case of a new coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa.
Of the newly identified local infections, 246 cases were reported in Seoul and 222 cases in Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital. Incheon, west of Seoul, reported 70 more cases.
Cluster infections continued to grow.
As of midnight, the number of COVID-19 cases traced to the Seoul Eastern Detention Center reached 958, including 916 detainees, up 13 from a day earlier.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun and Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae visited the detention center Saturday. Chung took issue with "insufficient" initial responses to the spread of the virus there, which he warned could lead to public distrust toward the government.
In a Facebook post Friday, Choo apologized for failing to prevent the infections inside the state-controlled facility.
Infections at a nursing home in Seoul's Guro district swelled to 200, up seven from the previous day, while the number of virus cases linked to a nursing home in the western border city of Paju rose by 23 to 58.
The COVID-19 cases tied to a religious group in the southern city of Ulsan increased by 17 to 100, while infections related to a health care center for senior citizens in the southeastern port city of Busan grew by 10 to 57.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients reached 361 on Saturday, compared with 354 from the previous day.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 43,578, up 625 from the previous day.
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