(ATTN: UPDATES with tally as of 9 p.m. in 4th para)
SEOUL, May 5 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new COVID-19 cases remained below 50,000 on Thursday for the second straight day, amid the recent lifting of the outdoor mask mandate in a major step toward a return to "normalcy."
The country reported 42,296 new COVID-19 infections, bringing the total caseload to 17,438,068, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Thursday's tally is slightly down from 49,064 reported Wednesday and sharply down from 57,464 reported a week earlier.
As of 9 p.m. Thursday, the country had reported 26,412 new cases, down 14,846 from the same time the previous day, according to health authorities and provincial governments. Daily virus cases are counted until midnight and announced the following morning.
Daily coronavirus infections have been on the downward trend in recent weeks after peaking at 621,171 on March 17.
The country added 79 COVID-19 deaths Thursday, bringing the total to 23,158, the KDCA said. The fatality rate stood at 0.13 percent.
The number of critically ill patients came to 441, slightly up from 432 a day earlier.
Of the locally transmitted infections, 6,645 cases were reported in Seoul and 10,242 in its surrounding Gyeonggi Province, the KDCA said.
As of midnight Wednesday, 44.55 million people, or 86.8 percent of the population, had been vaccinated with the first two shots, and 33.16 million people had received the first booster shots, representing 64.6 percent.
Effective Monday, the government lifted the outdoor mask mandate after more than 18 months of enforcement, except for large gatherings of 50 or more.
The government has already removed private gathering limits and business hour curfews.