(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 10-11, 15-16 ; ADDS photo)
SEOUL, June 30 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's daily new virus cases spiked to an over two-month high Wednesday as a series of cluster infections were reported in the wider Seoul area amid jitters over growing COVID-19 variant cases.
The country reported 794 more COVID-19 cases, including 759 local infections, raising the total caseload to 156,961, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said. The latest figure was up 199 from the previous day.
The country added one more death, raising the death toll to 2,018. The fatality rate was 1.29 percent.
The daily caseload marks the highest since April 23, when the comparable figure was 797.
The sharp rise in new virus cases came as the country is set to implement eased distancing rules starting Thursday, but there are growing concerns that the number of new infections may sharply rise down the road amid potential spread of the more contagious delta variant and loosened vigilance against the pandemic.
As three-quarters of daily infections are reported in the greater Seoul area, the health authorities decided to apply enhanced guidelines on virus-prone facilities, such as restaurants, cafes and indoor gyms, in the capital area for two weeks till July 14.
Health experts said the eased rules may ignite a surge in new virus infections as people in their 20s to 50s have yet to be vaccinated.
Under the eased distancing rules, a ban on gatherings of five or more people will be raised to six people until July 14 in the capital area before the ceiling will be extended to eight.
Restaurants and cafes will be allowed to open till midnight from the current 10 p.m., and bars and other nightlife facilities will also resume their operations.
The health authorities said the surge in new virus patients mostly involves those in their 20s to 30s, with the daily number of such patients rising 20 percent to reach over 500 over the past week.
If virus cases continue to increase, the social distancing level will be raised across the country, they said. Under the four-tier distancing level to be introduced next month, the greater Seoul area will be under Level 2.
As part of efforts to prevent COVID-19 variant cases from spreading, arrivals from India, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines will not be allowed to skip a mandatory 14-day quarantine even if they are vaccinated.
A total of 15.32 million people, or 29.8 percent of the country's 51.34 million population, have received their first shots of COVID-19 vaccines since the country started its vaccination program on Feb. 26.
The KDCA said 4.90 million people have been fully vaccinated, taking up 9.5 percent of the overall population.
South Korea is trying to inoculate 36 million people by September to achieve herd immunity in November, but it hopes it can reach the goal earlier than expected with the increased vaccine rollout.
The country currently uses vaccines from AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Janssen.
According to the health authorities, a total of 4,579 cases of side effects were reported from Monday to Tuesday. But 95.1 percent of 85,307 cases of side effects reported were found to be mild symptoms.
An additional 20 deaths after vaccination were reported for the two days, bringing the cumulative deaths to 356
Of the newly confirmed domestic cases, the capital area accounted for 79.4 percent, with 368 from Seoul, 234 from Gyeonggi Province and 29 from Incheon, 40 kilometers west of the capital.
There were 35 additional imported cases, bringing the total to 9,917.
Of the newly confirmed cases from overseas, nine came from Indonesia, followed by Uzbekistan with four.
The number of patients in serious or critical condition came to 149, down three from the previous day.
The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries was 147,693, up 616 from a day earlier, with 7,250 people being isolated for COVID-19 treatment.