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SEOUL, Feb. 2 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily new coronavirus cases stayed in the 300s for the third straight day on Tuesday as health authorities extended tough virus curbs amid a continued rise in cluster infections.
The country added 336 more COVID-19 cases, including 295 local infections, raising the total caseload to 78,844, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The daily caseload stood at 305 cases on Monday and 355 on Sunday, when the tally fell back to the 300s for the first time in five days.
Health authorities said they could loosen social distancing measures ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday that falls on Feb. 11-13 if the number of infections significantly slows down.
New virus cases recently spiked again due mainly to cluster infections from unauthorized education facilities run by a local Christian missionary group, called the International Mission (IM).
Amid a flare-up in virus cases, health authorities on Sunday extended Level 2.5 social distancing rules, the second highest in its five-tier scheme, in the greater Seoul area and Level 2 measures in other regions for another two weeks until Feb. 14.
Under the extended rules, gatherings of five or more people are also banned almost across the entire country.
The move, aimed at helping the country smoothly begin COVID-19 vaccinations next month and start the school spring semester in March, however, has drawn fierce protest from small merchants hit hard by prolonged restrictions from state and local virus measures.
Since the third wave of the pandemic peaked at a record high of 1,241 on Dec. 25, new virus infections have been slowing down.
But authorities believe relaxing the curbs runs the risk of an uptick as cluster infections have continued to pop up at religious facilities, hospitals and other risk-prone establishments.
Of the newly identified local infections, 121 cases were reported in Seoul and 70 cases in Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital. Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, reported eight more cases.
The southern city of Gwangju reported 23 more virus cases, and Busan also added 10 more cases.
The country added 41 imported cases, increasing the total to 6,369. Seventeen cases came from Asian countries excluding China, followed by 14 from the United States, seven from Europe and three from Africa.
The country added 10 more deaths, raising the total to 1,435. The fatality rate was 1.82 percent.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients reached 224, down from 225 a day earlier.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 68,775, up 466 from the previous day.
The country has carried out 5,711,413 coronavirus tests since Jan. 3, 2020. The country reported its first case on Jan. 20 last year.
Meanwhile, South Korea has extended the ban on passenger flights arriving from Britain until Feb. 11, which has been in place since Dec. 23, to block the new virus variant that was first identified in Britain.
All foreign entrants are required to present papers showing negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests taken within 72 hours of their departure to the nation.
The pandemic, which started in China in late 2019, has killed more than 2.2 million people worldwide and infected more than 103 million as of Feb. 1, 2021, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.
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