(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 7, 9, 25)
SEOUL, March 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily new coronavirus cases remained above 400 for the fourth consecutive day Friday, hitting a three-week high and prompting authorities to extend the current social distancing measures for two weeks.
The country reported 488 more COVID-19 cases, including 467 local infections, raising the total caseload to 94,686, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
The country added 10 more deaths from COVID-19, raising the total to 1,662.
The daily caseload has stayed in the 400s since early this week, with 446 cases Tuesday, 470 cases Wednesday and 465 cases on Thursday, placing authorities on alert over a potential resurgence. The latest figure is the highest since Feb. 19, when the country confirmed 561 cases.
The tally had been steadily declining since it reached its peak last Christmas with 1,241 cases on the back of strong virus curbs, including a ban on private gatherings of five or more people.
But the country has recently struggled to further flatten the virus curve, with the daily figure stuck in the 300s and 400s over the past few weeks amid a spate of new cluster infections and increasing travel due to warmer weather.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the country will maintain the current virus curb measures, originally set to expire on Sunday, until March 28.
The measures include the private gathering ban and attendance caps at schools, religious activities and sports events.
Authorities, however, made an exception for private gatherings of direct family members, allowing up to eight people.
The greater Seoul area is currently under the Level 2 social distancing scheme, the third highest in the country's five-tier system, while other regions are placed under Level 1.5.
Health authorities said they have also extended the ban on passenger flights arriving from Britain, which has been in place since Dec. 23, for an additional three weeks until April 1 to block the new virus variant that was first identified there.
South Korea has reported a total of 257 variant cases, with the British variant accounting for the majority at 154 cases.
All foreign arrivals have been required to present certificates of negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests taken within 72 hours of their departure for South Korea since late February. They are also required to undergo a 14-day isolation period upon their entry into the country.
The country is also working to finalize a new four-tier social distancing system by the end of this month. Authorities say the revamped virus curbs, however, will be implemented after the virus cases fall significantly.
South Korea's vaccination campaign, which started Feb. 26, has picked up steam, with around 1 percent of the country's 52 million population receiving their first jabs.
A total of 546,277 people, including 42,527 the previous day, have been inoculated.
AstraZeneca's vaccine has been given to 526,414 people, while 19,863 received that of Pfizer.
The number of people reporting adverse effects after receiving shots came to 7,648, up 789 from the previous day.
The majority of new reports were common and mild symptoms, such as headaches or fever, while there were four additional reports of suspicions of anaphylaxis.
The number of people who have died after receiving the shots remain at 15, though eight of the deaths have been tentatively judged as unrelated, with an investigation for the rest currently ongoing.
The country has also approved the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine for people aged 65 or older based on new overseas studies on Thursday. Health authorities initially excluded the age group from the pharmaceutical company's vaccines, citing insufficient data.
South Korea aims to achieve herd immunity by November.
Of the 467 locally transmitted cases, 138 additional cases were reported in Seoul and 157 in Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital. Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, identified 29 new cases.
The three areas, which make up the greater capital region and serve as home to about half of the nation's population, accounted for 69 percent of the new local cases.
In light of the recent trend of infections focused in the region, health authorities said they will conduct on-site inspections of public facilities, from restaurants to shopping malls, over the next two weeks to check whether they are following social distancing measures.
There were an additional 21 imported cases, raising the total caseload to 7,267.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients was 127, unchanged from the previous day.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries was 85,743, up 1,068 from a day earlier.
S. Korea, Japan ties again at major juncture in leadership transition period
Sejong closer to becoming virtual administrative capital
(News Focus) City development controversy widens amid revelation of astronomical severance pay for opposition lawmaker's son
On U.S. trip, Moon highlights S. Korea's global role, vaccine hub vision
Moon seeks breakthrough in peace process with concrete offer of war-ending declaration