(ATTN: UPDATES with virus tally as of 9 p.m. in paras 9-10)
SEOUL, Feb. 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will start vaccinating its population against COVID-19 on Feb. 26 if final approval for the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine for elderly people is made this week, health authorities said Tuesday.
The announcement by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) came as the nation reported a slight rise in daily coronavirus cases, with authorities still on high alert ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.
It was the first time that the KDCA set a start date for the vaccinations, raising hope that the nation could turn a corner in the yearlong battle against the pandemic.
AstraZeneca will start delivering the first batch of its COVID-19 vaccine to South Korea from Feb. 24. The vaccine will be distributed to hospitals and other medical facilities on Feb. 25, and inoculations will begin a day later, the KDCA said in a statement.
Medical workers and elderly people at nursing homes are expected to get the first doses of the vaccine, with health authorities aiming to achieve herd immunity for the nation's 52 million population by November.
Earlier in the day, the KDCA said the nation added 303 more COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, including 273 local infections, raising the total caseload to 81,487.
It marked an uptick from Monday's 289 new cases, which were the lowest daily infections since Nov. 23 last year.
South Korea added eight more deaths, raising the total to 1,482.
As of 9 p.m. Tuesday, the country had reported 412 new virus cases, up from 261 tallied during the same time period a day earlier.
Of the total, 344, or 83.5 percent, were reported from the greater Seoul area, including 162 in Gyeonggi Province and 162 in the capital.
Since late last month, the local daily caseload has been moving in the 300-400 range due to cluster infections from unauthorized education facilities run by a Christian missionary group in the central and southwestern regions.
New virus infections have been slowing down since the third wave of the pandemic peaked at a record high of 1,241 daily cases on Dec. 25.
With small business owners strongly protesting the country's tough social distancing scheme, which currently bans restaurants from having dine-in customers after 9 p.m., a revised guideline was implemented from Monday.
The new rules extended operating hours of restaurants, cafes, bars and fitness clubs outside the Seoul metropolitan region by one hour to 10 p.m. The 9 p.m. closing was maintained for Seoul and the surrounding areas.
Health authorities, however, are on high alert ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday that runs from Thursday to Saturday. Millions of South Koreans normally travel across the country to visit their relatives and families.
Accordingly, other social distancing guidelines, including the ban on gatherings of five or more people, will be maintained through next Sunday.
South Korea has so far identified 80 cases of COVID-19 variants, known to be much more contagious. Of them, 26 cases, including four locally transmitted cases, were reported on Monday, the KDCA said.
Of the newly identified local infections, 86 cases were reported in Seoul and 111 cases in the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, reported 14 more cases. The three regions represent around half of the nation's population.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients reached 189, up one from a day earlier.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries was up 458 from the previous day to reach 71,676.
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