(ATTN: ADDS comments, more info on mask mandates in paras 8-15, additional photo)
SEOUL, Sept. 26 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new COVID-19 cases fell to the lowest number in more than two months on Monday, as the virus wave has been slowing down at a steady pace and the government has fully lifted outdoor mask mandates.
The country reported 14,168 new COVID-19 infections, including 220 from overseas, bringing the total caseload to 24,634,296, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
It is the smallest figure since July 11, when the daily figure came to 12,672. The latest count is also down from 25,792 cases logged the previous day and from 19,389 a week earlier.
The virus wave, triggered by the spread of a highly contagious omicron variant, has been on a decline after a resurgence in July that later peaked above 180,000 cases in mid-August.
On Monday, the country reported 33 more deaths from COVID-19, raising the death toll to 28,246.
The number of critically ill patients came to 427, up by 11 from Sunday, the KDCA said.
In line with the waning virus trend, the government lifted all outdoor mask mandates from Monday.
South Korea began implementing the mask-wearing rules in October 2020 and had strengthened them further last year.
But it partially eased outdoor mask mandates in May only to enforce mask wearing for those at outdoor gatherings of 50 or more people, and such large-scale events as sporting events and concerts. People who violated the rules were subject to a fine.
Prime Minister Han Duck-soo has said the country is "overcoming a critical moment" of a COVID-19 resurgence, and it will ease low-risk antivirus steps in phases in consultation with experts.
"Wearing masks is still needed on a voluntary basis in accordance with circumstances. Particularly, it is needed for high-risk groups and those who come in contact with high-risk groups," a KDCA official said.
But rules for indoor mask wearing will be in place for the time being on possible risks of seasonal influenza and other infectious diseases, according to officials.
"Lifting all indoor mask-wearing rules at one time would minimize confusion. It could be lifted after the seventh wave passes and the situation is stabilized," said Jung Ki-suck, a civilian adviser to the government task force on the pandemic.
He voiced objection to easing the indoor mask mandates in phases, though some have called on the government to ease the rules for young people to ensure their development of language skills and other health reasons.
"No one can be sure about the timing and the scale of another virus wave. Thorough preparations for the seventh wave are a must," Jung said.