(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 10-11, 13)
SEOUL, Oct. 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily new COVID-19 cases stayed in the 1,600s for the second consecutive day Saturday, as the government plans to relax social distancing rules, starting next week, ahead of a gradual return to normal life.
The country added 1,618 more COVID-19 cases, including 1,594 local infections, raising the total caseload to 340,978, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The latest tally was down from 1,684 cases reported on Friday and 1,940 on Thursday. The daily infection count has stayed in the quadruple digits since July 7 and in the 1,000s for eight consecutive days.
The country added 18 more deaths from COVID-19, raising the death toll to 2,644.
On Friday, the government announced a set of eased social distancing rules as South Korea prepares for a "living with COVID-19" scheme next month, in which the virus will be treated as an infectious respiratory disease, like seasonal influenza.
Under the renewed plan that will take effect Monday, the greater Seoul area -- home to half of the country's population of 52 million -- will remain under the toughest social distancing of Level 4, while the rest of the country will be under Level 3.
Still, the government will allow social gatherings of up to eight people, up from the current cap of six, in the greater Seoul area after 6 p.m. if four of them are fully vaccinated. The relaxed curb will be applied to all multiuse facilities, including cafes and restaurants.
A maximum of 10 people, including six fully vaccinated people, will be allowed in other regions.
The KDCA said 40.33 million people, or 78.5 percent of the country's population, have received their first shots of COVID-19 vaccines and the number of fully vaccinated people stands at 32.81 million, or 63.9 percent.
So far, 320,910 cases of suspected post-vaccination side effects have been reported, with 8,637 counted in the past two days. More than 96 percent of the cases involved mild symptoms, such as muscle pain and fever.
There have been 781 deaths after vaccination, though the authorities have yet to identify a causal relationship between inoculation and death in most cases.
Of the locally transmitted cases, Seoul reported 585 new cases, with Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital city adding 579 cases and Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, 103 cases.
The number of new imported cases came to 24. The cases include 17 from Asian countries, excluding China, and one from Europe.
The number of patients with serious symptoms across the country reached 361, down 10 from the previous day, the KDCA said.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries came to 308,187, up 2,336 from a day earlier.
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