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SEOUL, July 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Friday reported the highest-ever daily COVID-19 cases since the outbreak of the pandemic, as health authorities decided to impose the toughest virus curbs in the greater Seoul area, the hotbed for the recent spike in virus infections, in an effort to bring the fourth wave of the outbreak under control.
The country recorded 1,316 more COVID-19 cases, including 1,236 local infections, raising the total caseload to 164,028, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
It marked the highest number since the nation reported its first confirmed infection on Jan. 20 last year.
Also, it was the first time that the nation's daily infections rose above 1,200 for the third straight day. Friday's figure compares with 711 on Monday, 746 on Tuesday, 1,212 on Wednesday and 1,275 on Thursday.
The country added two more COVID-19 deaths, raising the death toll to 2,036.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said the government will raise virus curbs to the toughest level in Seoul and its neighboring Gyeonggi Province and Incheon on Monday for two weeks.
Under the Level 4 rules, private gatherings of three or more people will be banned after 6 p.m. and in-person classes will be closed. Weddings and funerals can only be joined by relatives. Gatherings at entertainment establishments, including night clubs, pubs and sports games, will be ordered to shut down, while restaurants will be allowed to have dine-in customers until 10 p.m.
Kim asked the public to "begin refraining from joining private gatherings today."
All schools and kindergartens in the greater Seoul area will switch to online education from next Wednesday until July 25, officials said.
Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol appealed to the public to strictly comply with the toughest curbs, saying that the fourth wave could be the last crisis of the pandemic before the nation achieves herd immunity.
Kwon said the fourth wave may last for a "considerable period of time" because small cluster infections continue to pop up.
Kwon urged people to stay home and refrain from private gatherings during the semi-lockdown period.
As the nation is grappling with the fourth wave, health authorities warned that the worst may be yet to come. In the worst-case scenario, the nation's daily new infections could stand at 2,140 late this month, the KDCA 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, the KDCA 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 15.47 million people, or 30.2 percent of the country's population, have received their first shots of COVID-19 vaccines. The KDCA said 5.57 million people have been fully vaccinated, accounting for 11 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, 495 were from Seoul, 396 from the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and 72 from the western port city of Incheon.
There were 80 additional imported cases, with 71 of them from Asian nations.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries was 152,498, up 575 from a day earlier.
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