Medical workers conduct COVID-19 testing at a temporary screening center outside Seoul Station in central Seoul on Saturday. (Yonhap)
South Korea's daily new coronavirus cases fell below 1,000 on Sunday, mainly due to less testing over the weekend, as the government is considering whether to raise social distancing rules to the highest level to contain the winter wave of the virus.
The country added 970 more COVID-19 cases, including 946 local infections, raising the total caseload to 56,872, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The tally marked a decline from 1,132 cases Saturday, 1,241 cases Friday, 985 cases Thursday and 1,090 cases Wednesday. In the span of the past 10 days, the nation's daily virus cases hovered around 1,000.
Fifteen people died from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, raising the death toll to 808.
Health authorities have been considering whether to raise the country's social distancing guidelines to Level 3, the highest in its five-tier scheme.
However, authorities said they are aiming to contain the current wave of the pandemic without raising virus curbs to the toughest level on concerns over the impact on the economy.
Instead of applying measures that would deal a severe blow to millions of small merchants, health authorities have deployed "targeted" virus curbs.
Since last Wednesday, the greater Seoul area has banned gatherings of five or more people. Restaurants in the greater Seoul area face a fine if they allow gatherings of more than four people. The strongest-ever measures have been applied nationwide since last Thursday as well.
Ski resorts and famous tourism venues were shut down to slow the spread of the virus during the Christmas and New Year's holiday season.
To help find unconfirmed infections with no symptoms, health authorities have expanded anonymous testing since Dec. 14. A total of 1,252 infections, including 111 cases in the past 24 hours, has been confirmed through such testing so far, the KDCA said.
South Korea has been applying Level 2.5 social distancing rules in the greater Seoul area, home to half of its 51.6 million population, and Level 2 rules in the rest of the country.
Of the newly identified local infections, 359 cases were reported in Seoul and 237 cases in Gyeonggi Province that surrounds the capital. Incheon, west of Seoul, reported 60 more cases.
Other municipalities reported new infections, with the country's largest port city of Busan adding 40 cases and South Gyeongsang Province reporting 44 new cases.
South Korea had managed to bring two waves of virus infections under control since the pandemic began, but health authorities are struggling to contain the current wave because clusters continue to emerge in the densely populated capital area. At the same time, clusters showed signs of growing across the nation.
A detention center in Seoul's Songpa Ward reported eight additional patients, raising the caseload to 528, while a nursing home in Seoul's Yangcheon Ward identified 27 more cases, with the total reaching 28.
Other major cluster infections included a nursing home in Goyang, north of Seoul, which added two more patients, raising the total to 86. A religious facility in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul, has reported 33 patients.
South Korea temporarily halted all flights from Britain until Thursday due to concerns over a new variant of COVID-19, believed to spread faster, in London.
An elderly Korean man in his 80s, who recently returned from Britain, has posthumously tested positive for COVID-19, prompting authorities to look into whether he contracted the new variant. Two of his family members have also tested positive.
Health authorities said that test results on whether the virus is the new variant are expected to come out during the first week of January.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients reached 293, compared with 299 from the previous day.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 39,040, up 508 from the previous day.
The country, meanwhile, added 24 imported cases, increasing the total to 5,297.
Eight cases came from Russia, followed by four from the United States and four from Indonesia.
The country has carried out 4,006,412 coronavirus tests since Jan. 3, including 36,997 tests in the past 24 hours. The country reported its first case on Jan. 20. (Yonhap)