SEOUL, Nov. 20 (UPI) -- South Korea is facing a third wave of coronavirus infections in the greater Seoul area, health authorities said Friday, as they asked people to refrain from social gatherings and warned of further social distancing restrictions.
South Korea recorded 363 new infections on Friday, marking the third straight day cases have exceeded 300. The daily figure is the highest since late August.
More than 200 of the new cases were located in the Seoul metropolitan area, where roughly half of South Korea's 52 million people live.
"In the greater Seoul area, we are seeing a widespread infection," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official, said at a press briefing. "This is the third major wave following earlier ones in February-March and August."
The Seoul area has averaged 153 cases per day over the past week, and Yoon said the government could further tighten social-distancing guidelines if the average climbs above 200.
Health authorities raised distancing regulations one level on South Korea's five-tier system this week, from Level 1 to Level 1.5.
Going to the next step, Level 2, would prohibit any gatherings of more than 100 people and force high-risk venues such as bars, nightclubs, karaoke rooms and concert halls to suspend operations.
Such a move would "cause great difficulties and challenges for the public," Yoon said.
"We hope we can contain the virus before that," he added.
Yoon also cautioned that a continued rise in cases could quickly put a strain on South Korea's available intensive-care unit beds.
"We could be facing a shortage [of beds] in the near future," he said. "We are continuing to increase and secure a greater number of ICU hospital beds."
In a televised address on Friday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun called the latest wave of infections a "crisis" and urged South Koreans, especially those older than 60, to "minimize unnecessary outings and meetings" as winter approaches.
"Please refrain from holding year-end gatherings and, other than for essential activities, stay at home if possible," he said.
The prime minister noted that the latest outbreak is concentrated among younger people, with more than 50% of patients confirmed in the last week under 40, making it harder to trace infections.
"Due to the nature of young people with asymptomatic infections, it is difficult to handle the extent and speed of the spread," Chung said.
Almost half a million South Korean high school seniors are gearing up to take the grueling, once-a-year College Scholastic Aptitude Test on Dec. 3, and health officials are trying to contain the outbreak in order to allow the exam to run smoothly.
"Even with the COVID-19 situation, the government will do our best to allow the test to be taken fairly in a safe environment," he said.
Friday's new infections saw South Korea's total caseload reach 30,017. Three deaths were also reported, bringing the overall toll to 501.