SEOUL — South Korea reported 686 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday as it battles a third wave of infections that is threatening to overwhelm its medical system.
The daily tally was the second-highest since the start of the pandemic, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). New cases have been consistently around 600 over the past week.
Tougher social distancing rules took effect on Tuesday, including curfews on restaurants and most other businesses.
The government has also introduced a new testing method to cater to surging demand, and eased rules to release some recovered patients faster to free up hospital beds.
"Testing is very critical to cutting the chained transmission," health official Yoon Tae-ho told a briefing.
Many of the cases had been found in young people who had been highly mobile, making it more difficult to trace infections, he said.
The government has signed deals with four global drug makers as part of a program to procure COVID-19 vaccines for 44 million people.
President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday urged the authorities to continue to make efforts in securing additional vaccines, taking the people's safety and lives as the top priority even if that adds financial constraints.
"The vaccines we've secured for 44 million are sufficient to bring herd immunity to our people. But it is too early to be at ease, considering that the vaccines have been developed very urgently and there could be an unexpected situation," Moon told an emergency meeting.
He also called for drawing up an early inoculation plan so that vaccination will begin as soon as the shipments arrive.
The health ministry had said shipments would begin no later than March, and vaccinations may start in the first half of next year depending on factors such as observations in other countries about their safety, the spread of COVID-19 and public demand.
South Korea's total infections stand at 39,432, with 556 deaths.
The U.S. military command in South Korea apologized after photos showed people without masks dancing close together at entertainment spots on two American bases in the country.
The recent events "displayed poor judgment and actions inconsistent" with the command's tenets and virus-prevention measures, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) said in a statement.
Two venues were closed on the bases and the command said it would follow the South Korean government's social distancing rules as well as its own guidelines.