(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 12, 19)
SEOUL, Jan. 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily new coronavirus cases stayed below 1,000 for the second consecutive day on Wednesday amid signs of a slowdown, while nursing homes and churches continued to be hot spots for virus outbreaks despite extended virus curbs.
The country added 840 more COVID-19 cases, including 809 local infections, raising the total caseload to 65,818, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Wednesday's daily caseload rose from 715 on Tuesday but fell sharply from 1,020 on Monday when mass infections from a Seoul prison and nursing homes were reported. The average daily new cases stood at 863.9 and the reproduction rate stayed slightly below 1 over the past week.
Twenty people died from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours to raise the death toll to 1,027.
Authorities said the current pace of the pandemic is within a manageable level, saying there have been no patients waiting for hospitalization in the Seoul metropolitan over the past three days.
"The preemptive testing and the public's cooperation with the social distancing guidelines is slowly showing effectiveness," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official, said in a briefing.
As long-term care facilities and detention centers have reported a rising number of new cases, health authorities plan to increase testing and step up monitoring on such facilities to detect patients at an early stage and prevent mass infections.
The justice ministry said it is considering conducting full-on COVID-19 testing on all inmates and staff at 52 correctional facilities nationwide in a bid to contain further spread of the virus.
Health authorities said the virus curve has been slowly flattening thanks to preemptive testing and social distancing rules, but they remained cautious over continued group infections and the possibility of a virus resurgence in the winter season and the spread of a new virus variant.
As the country has reported 12 cases of a more transmissible coronavirus variant first reported in Britain, South Korea has been tightening restrictions on the entry of foreigners.
Starting Friday, foreigners arriving at South Korean airports must present a negative coronavirus test taken within 72 hours before their departure to the nation, the KDCA said.
Related government agencies have also been discussing whether to extend the ban on passenger flights departing from Britain, which has been in place since Dec. 23, to block the new virus variant, officials said.
To cope with the largest-ever wave of the pandemic, health authorities have extended the Level 2.5 distancing measures -- the second highest in the five-tier scheme -- for the greater Seoul area and Level 2 measures for the rest of the country until Jan. 17.
Private gatherings of more than four people are also banned across the nation during the designated period.
The extended virus curbs, however, have drawn strong complaints from small merchants and gym operators, who criticize authorities of implementing "unfair" and "arbitrary" distancing guidelines on businesses.
While Level 2.5 distancing bans indoor sports facilities, authorities eased regulations on taekwondo and ballet centers, which are registered as private education institutes, allowing them to open classes with a cap of nine people.
Authorities said they will complement guidelines for indoor sports facilities to effectively limit people's activities and lessen the burden on business operators.
"We will consider all possibilities to complement (distancing guidelines) and discuss ways to improve fairness issues raised by (business owners) to announce new measures," Yoon said.
As part of the third round of an emergency assistance program, Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said the government plans to provide 9.3 trillion won (US$8.6 billion) of relief funds to smaller merchants hit hard by the new coronavirus outbreak by the Lunar New Year's holiday in early February.
Of the newly identified local infections, 263 cases were reported in Seoul and 269 cases in Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital. Incheon, west of Seoul, reported 35 more cases.
A prison in eastern Seoul has reported a total of 1,118 patients since the first confirmed case on Nov. 27, the KDCA said.
A total of 94 cases has been reported from a church in Yongin, 50 kilometers south of Seoul, and 199 cases were connected to a missionary group in Ulsan, 414 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
Several new cases across the nation were linked to a missionary church in Sangju, 270 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
In addition, senior homes and hospitals across the nation have reported additional cases.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients reached 411 on Tuesday, compared with 386 from the previous day.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 46,995, up 823 from the previous day.
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