(ATTN: UPDATES with comments by prime minister in paras 12-13)
SEOUL, Nov. 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new coronavirus cases stayed below 3,000 for the second straight day Tuesday, but the number of critically ill patients hit an all-time high, raising concerns over a shortage of hospital beds for treatment.
The country reported 2,699 new COVID-19 cases, including 2,685 local infections, raising the total caseload to 420,950, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
This marked the second straight day that the daily infections remained below 3,000. The figure still has remained in the quadruple digits since July 7.
The country added 30 more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the death toll to 3,328, with the fatality rate standing at 0.79 percent.
The number of critically ill COVID-19 patients hit an all-time high of 549, up 34 from a day earlier, breaking the previous record of 522 reported last Wednesday. The figure has remained over 500 for four days in a row.
Nearly 90 percent of the critical cases were reported among those aged 60 and older.
The government is currently struggling to secure enough hospital beds for treatment, especially in the greater Seoul area, where around 80 percent of infections are reported.
According to health authorities, about 77 percent of beds at hospital intensive care units in Seoul and its surrounding area were occupied last week, up from 69.5 percent a week earlier.
Concerns are growing for a possible upsurge in infections amid eased social distancing rules under the "living with COVID-19" scheme launched early this month to bring the country gradually back to pre-pandemic normalcy.
On Monday, all elementary, middle and high schools nationwide resumed full-fledged in-person classes, raising worries that many unvaccinated teens could be exposed to risks of infections.
The resumption marked the first time since schools switched to learning from home or classes being held in shifts since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
During a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said the government could not further postpone the resumption of in-person classes amid worries that learning from home and other restrictions could result in insufficient education support and falling academic achievement of students.
Kim ordered the education ministry and other relevant government agencies to do their best to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at school and other multi-use facilities, such as study rooms and PC cafes, frequently used by students.
Of the locally transmitted cases, Seoul, its surrounding Gyeonggi Province and the western port city of Incheon reported 1,160, 769 and 129 cases, respectively, the KDCA said. Their combined figure accounted for 76.6 percent of local infections.
A total of 42.29 million people, or 82.4 percent of the country's population, have received their first shots of COVID-19 vaccines, and 40.5 million people, or 79 percent, have been fully vaccinated.
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