(ATTN: UPDATES with latest figures in paras 6-8)
SEOUL, Nov. 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new coronavirus cases and critical cases soared to all-time highs Wednesday, prompting the government to consider imposing an emergency COVID-19 response plan just weeks after easing social distancing rules under the "living with COVID-19" scheme.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum urged health authorities to beef up containment measures, saying the country is facing the first hurdle in its move back toward normalcy and the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country's 52 million population, is in an urgent situation.
The country reported 4,115 new COVID-19 cases, including 4,088 local infections, raising the total caseload to 425,065, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
This marked the highest since the country reported its first confirmed coronavirus case in January last year. It also broke the previous daily record of 3,292 reported last Thursday.
The number of critically ill patients hit an all-time high of 586. The country added 34 more deaths from COVID-19, the highest number since the start of the fourth wave of the pandemic in July, bringing the death toll to 3,362, with the fatality rate standing at 0.79 percent.
As of 9 p.m., 3,035 new cases had been confirmed, down 502 from the previous day, according to local governments and health authorities, excluding the southeastern city of Busan, which stopped releasing real-time data.
But additional cases from Seoul came to 1,513, marking a record-high figure for the period.
Cases are counted until midnight and announced the following morning.
Health authorities earlier reported 4,116 infections and 35 coronavirus-related deaths, but they later excluded the country's first fetal death from the daily death toll as it died before birth registration. The fetus tested positive for COVID-19 after being born Monday, the authorities said.
Daily infections soared as the government began easing antivirus restrictions on Nov. 1 for a gradual return to pre-pandemic life under the three-phase "living with COVID-19" scheme.
South Korea planned to move to the second stage in mid-December, but health authorities have warned the country may not be able to do so if the current trend continues.
The government is struggling to secure enough hospital beds, especially in the greater Seoul area, as infections remain high and the number of critically ill patients is on the rise.
"We should beef up support measures so that asymptomatic patients and those with mild symptoms can have treatments at home safely," Kim said.
Health authorities said 83.3 percent of beds for patients in serious condition in Seoul and its surrounding area had been occupied as of 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Of the locally transmitted cases, Seoul, the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and the western port city of Incheon reported 1,730, 1,176 and 219 infections, respectively. Their combined number accounted for over 70 percent of the local infections.
A total of 42.32 million people, or 82.4 percent of the country's population, have received their first shots of COVID-19 vaccines, and 40.63 million people, or 79.1 percent, have been fully vaccinated.