(ATTN: ADDS details in paras 6-7, 14)
SEOUL, July 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported the highest daily COVID-19 cases since the pandemic hit the nation early last year on Thursday as the country braces for another wave of the pandemic, prompting authorities to consider imposing tougher virus curbs.
The country recorded 1,275 more COVID-19 cases, including 1,227 local infections, raising the total caseload to 164,028, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
It marked the highest number since Jan. 20 last year, when the nation reported its first confirmed infection.
Also, it was the first time that the nation's daily infections rose above 1,200 for a second straight day. Thursday's figure compares with 1,212 on Wednesday, 746 on Tuesday, 711 on Monday and 743 on Sunday.
The country added one more COVID-19 death, raising the death toll to 2,034.
As of 9 p.m. Thursday, South Korea reported 1,179 new cases, up 66 from the same time the previous day, according to health authorities and local governments. The number hovered above 1,000 for the third consecutive day.
Daily cases are counted until midnight and announced the following morning. The greater Seoul area accounted for around 78.5 percent of the total.
As concerns over a fourth wave of outbreaks over the summer grew, health authorities decided to extend current distancing curbs in the greater Seoul area for one week on Wednesday but warned of further tougher measures unless the current situation is brought under control.
Current social distancing rules, including a ban on private gatherings of five or more people and a 10 p.m. curfew on restaurants, in the greater Seoul area were extended until next Wednesday.
President Moon Jae-in has ordered the swift deployment of police officers, military personnel and civil servants to help with COVID-19 tests and tracing.
Sohn Young-rae, a senior health ministry official, told reporters that the government was considering imposing tougher restrictions in the greater Seoul area, but it was still undecided on when it will toughen virus curbs.
COVID-19 transmissions in the capital Seoul are approaching a level where the government could impose the toughest restrictions, Sohn said.
Under the toughest restrictions, private gatherings of two or more people will be banned after 6 p.m.
South Korea's health authorities said they will announce new social distancing measures for the greater Seoul area on Friday, amid expectations that the capital area may be placed under the highest level in the four-tier system.
KDCA chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said South Korea "is at a stage of entering the fourth wave" and the worst is yet to come.
In the worst-case scenario, the nation's daily new infections could stand at 2,140 late this month, Jeong said. Unless things get worse, Jeong said the average daily new infections could stand at 1,400 in late July.
If vaccinations gain pace and people strictly comply with virus curbs, the number could drop to between 260 and 415 in September, Jeong said.
Jeong also voiced concerns over the rapidly spreading delta variant. Over the past week, the delta variant accounted for 9.9 percent of new infections in South Korea, compared with 3.3 percent a week earlier.
For the greater Seoul area, the highly transmissible delta variant accounted for 12.7 percent of new infections over the past week, compared with 4.5 percent a week earlier.
The delta variant could become a dominant strain of COVID-19 here in August, Jeong said.
Cluster infections have recently grown at various places, including companies, schools and department stores, amid a surge in cases of the contagious delta COVID-19 variant.
About 80 percent of new infections came from Seoul and its neighboring areas, with people in their 20s and 30s, most of whom are not eligible for vaccinations, fueling new cases, according to the KDCA.
A total of 15.44 million people, or 30.1 percent of the country's population, have received their first shots of COVID-19 vaccines. The KDCA said 5.49 million people have been fully vaccinated, accounting for 10.8 percent of the population.
The country currently administers two-dose vaccines from AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna, as well as Janssen's single-shot vaccine.
Of the newly confirmed domestic cases, 545 were from Seoul, 388 from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and 61 from the western port city of Incheon.
There were 48 additional imported cases, with 43 of them from Asian nations.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries was 151,923, up 423 from a day earlier.
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