(ATTN: UPDATES with more details, comments in paras 7-11; CHANGES photo)
SEOUL, Nov. 23 (Yonhap) -- The number of new coronavirus cases in South Korea fell below 300 for the first time in six days on Monday due to less testing on the weekend, as the greater Seoul area is set to be under tougher virus curbs starting Tuesday to prevent another wave of the pandemic.
The country added 271 more COVID-19 cases, including 255 local infections, raising the total caseload to 31,004, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The latest figure fell from 330 on Sunday, which was attributable to the fewer number of tests conducted over the weekend.
The daily caseload has stayed in the triple digits since Nov. 8, with the figure hovering over 300 in the last five days.
The recent surge of the virus prompted health authorities to raise the social distancing level by one notch to Level 2, the third-highest in the five-tier system, in the Seoul metropolitan area for two weeks starting Tuesday.
The latest measure comes only days after Seoul raised distancing by one notch to Level 1.5 on Thursday to urge people and business owners to take extra precautions.
Health authorities said the tougher antivirus actions are meant to stop another wave of the pandemic, which could overwhelm the nation's health care system.
"The third wave of the pandemic is under way due to the silent spread of the virus in our daily lives, leading to over 2,000 additional cases in a week," Second Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae said in a meeting with senior health officials. "If we fail to break the chain of infections, antivirus measures and medical efforts would not be sustainable."
Unlike the previous outbreaks in the southeastern city of Daegu in February and Seoul in August, the latest outbreaks are harder to trace because they have occurred in small gatherings of family and friends, where people take off their masks.
"The pre-emptive antivirus measures are inevitable to prevent the next wave of the pandemic, which could put a serious strain on daily lives and the economy," he said.
The KDCA earlier said the nation's reproduction rate for COVID-19 has already topped 1.5, meaning that one patient infects more than 1.5 people. Authorities warned that the country could see more than 600 virus cases daily in early December unless the current pace is curbed.
Under the Level 2 scheme, gatherings involving 100 or more people are banned, while some virus-prone facilities, including nightclubs, need to suspend their business. Restaurants are allowed to serve food until 9 p.m., with only takeout and delivery services available afterward.
North and South Jeolla Provinces will be under the Level 1.5 distancing starting Tuesday, while other small cities and counties across the nation have enforced tougher distancing rules in accordance with the recent rise in new cases.
Health authorities warned a third wave of pandemic is under way due to cluster infections from private gatherings, public facilities and hospitals, calling for stronger action before a nationwide college exam in early December.
Of the 255 locally transmitted cases, 206 were identified in the capital area, home to nearly half of the nation's population. Seoul added 109 more cases, while the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and western port city of Incheon reported 74 and 23 cases, respectively.
The capital region registered over 200 virus cases for the fourth straight day.
A total of 45 people tested positive from gatherings of family and friends in Incheon, and 69 cases were linked to a cram school in Seoul.
Most major cities and municipalities have reported new infections.
Gangwon Province registered 11 new cases, followed by North Jeolla Province with nine, South Chungcheong Province with eight and South Jeolla Province with five.
The number of new imported cases came to 16, down from 28 the previous day.
The country reported four additional deaths from COVID-19, raising the total to 509. The fatality rate was 1.64 percent.
The number of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients came to 79.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries stood at 26,539, up 73 from the previous day.