Employees work at a Mode Tour office in central Seoul on Monday, as an accelerating vaccination drive raises hopes of overseas travel to countries such as Guam, Saipan and Taiwan later this year. (Yonhap)
South Korea's daily new coronavirus cases stayed in the 300s for the second consecutive day Tuesday amid a vaccination drive, but the potential spread of COVID-19 variants remains worrisome ahead of eased distancing rules starting July.
The country reported 395 new cases, including 351 local infections, raising the total caseload to 151,901, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
The country added two COVID-19 deaths, raising the death toll to 2,006. The fatality rate came to 1.32 percent.
The number of daily imported cases topped 40 for the third straight day amid woes over potential transmission of the coronavirus variants, especially the one believed to have originated from India.
The country has yet to report a large number of the so-called Delta variant cases, but other countries, such as Britain and the United States whose vaccination rates topped 50 percent, have been struggling with rising cases of the variant, which is known to be more transmissible than others.
KDCA Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong said Tuesday that the agency is closely monitoring the situation when it comes to virus variants as the number of variant cases has been on the increase since December.
As of June 19, the number of virus variants reached an accumulated 2,225 here, with the number of cases involving the Indian coronavirus strain reaching 190.
The country also added two more cases of breakthrough infections, raising the total to 31 as of Thursday, the KDCA said.
According to authorities, most Delta virus cases are imported, a large portion of which were found in South Koreans who arrived last month from India.
The woes over variant cases came as the country is set to ease its social distancing scheme next month, which allows businesses to stay open longer and permits gatherings of more people.
Currently, the greater Seoul area is under Level 2 distancing in the five-level scheme, while the rest of the country is under Level 1.5. Private gatherings of five or more are banned nationwide.
Under the new four-tier system, restaurants and cafes in the capital area will be permitted to operate until midnight under Level 2, an extension from the current restrictions of 10 p.m.
The nationwide ban on gatherings of five or more people will be lifted under the renewed guidelines, with the ceiling set to be raised to eight under Level 2. No restrictions are applied under Level 1.
In the greater Seoul area, the ceiling will initially be set at six people over a two-week transition period.
Of the newly confirmed locally transmitted cases, 126 came from Seoul and 92 from Gyeonggi Province.
Daejeon, 160 kilometers south of Seoul, added 30 cases. Incheon, just west of Seoul, added 15 patients, and the southeastern port city of Busan had six more cases.
Health authorities counted 44 more imported cases, raising the tally to 9,611. Of the imported cases, Asian countries, excluding China, accounted for 39, followed by Africa with two cases, Europe with two, the United States with one, and Mexico with one.
Amid the nationwide vaccination drive, a total of 15.03 million people, or 29.3 percent of the country's 51.3 million population, have received their first shots of COVID-19 vaccines. Four million, or 8.1 percent of the population, were fully inoculated as of Tuesday.
The country aims to inoculate 36 million with at least one jab by September to achieve herd immunity in November.
South Korea has beefed up its vaccine arsenal, currently administering two-part vaccines from AstraZeneca and Pfizer, as well as Janssen's single-dose vaccine. Moderna's vaccine is set to be given soon after completing its approval process earlier last week.
Novavax's vaccine will be introduced upon its approval.
The country has so far secured enough vaccines to inoculate around 100 million people.
The number of patients in serious or critical condition came to 135, down two from the previous day.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries was 143,817, up 549 from a day earlier.
South Korea has carried out 10.38 million COVID-19 tests so far, including 33,996 the previous day. (Yonhap)