(ATTN: UPDATES with PM's comments in last 3 paras, photo)
SEOUL, Oct. 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported 1,440 new daily cases Friday in a downward trend in its coronavirus infections as its strong vaccination push seems to be helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus from spinning out of control.
The new tally, including 1,420 local infections, brought the total caseload to 348,969, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
Friday's number is down one from the 1,441 counted the previous day. It is also down 117 from a week ago.
The death toll came to 2,725, up 16 from a day earlier.
Although South Korea has logged more than 1,000 daily cases since early July, it is seeing a downward trend in its coronavirus infections after the fourth wave of the pandemic peaked in late September.
The average daily number of confirmed cases during the Oct. 10-16 period was 1,562, down 20.3 percent from the previous week, according to KDCA data released earlier this week.
Of the locally transmitted cases, Seoul reported 519 new cases, with the surrounding Gyeonggi Province adding 518 and Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, 121 cases.
The number of patients released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 320,317, up by 2,562 from the previous day, the KDCA said.
As of Friday, 68.2 percent of the country's 52 million population were fully vaccinated, while 79.2 percent had received their first shots.
With accelerating inoculations, South Korea is gearing up to return to some semblance of normalcy.
The government said it will introduce the "living with COVID-19" scheme within this month, when 70 percent of the population and 80 percent of all South Korean adults become fully vaccinated.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Friday the government will plan its exit strategies from the pandemic in a gradual manner, adding that restrictions will be first removed for small businesses hit hard by strict social distancing rules.
"The return to normal will proceed in stages and systematically," Kim said during a meeting of a government-civilian panel overseeing the transition to life after COVID-19.
"We will take drastic and active steps to ease the virus restrictions starting with businesses and neglected groups that have suffered greatly (during the pandemic), and facilities with a low risk of spreading infections," he said.
In the early stages of the transition, the eased restrictions must apply only to the fully vaccinated, he said, and the government's coronavirus response will focus more on the prevention of severe hospitalizations and deaths, rather than on infections.
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