SEOUL, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- South Korea saw its highest daily number of COVID-19 infections in over eight months Thursday, recording 586 new cases in what officials are warning is the third and most dangerous wave yet to hit the country.
The daily total is the first time South Korea has exceeded 500 cases since early March, during a massive outbreak centered around a religious sect the southeastern city of Daegu.
"South Korea is currently undergoing and fighting against a third major outbreak," said Lee Sang-won, a senior official with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency at a press briefing Thursday.
"Right now, rather than one large cluster infection centering around a region, we have small cluster infections at various regions nationwide," he said. "We have seen more diverse sources of infection and have also identified that the younger generation is spreading the virus."
Hospitals have been recording rising numbers of positive cases, and doctors warn that the current spike is presenting new challenges for South Korean officials.
"In the earlier outbreaks, the clusters were more focused," said Dr. Oh Seung-jin, director of policy at NHIS Ilsan Hospital outside of Seoul. "Now, [the virus] could be spreading from a neighbor in your building or the table next to you in the restaurant."
Oh told UPI that the methods that South Korea has been using to get the virus under control are not as effective with this new outbreak.
"Until now, the government focused on tracing [cases] to contain the spread," he said. "But this is a different situation. Now we are facing many more untraceable cases. Personal hygiene and distancing are more important than ever."
The Seoul metropolitan area implemented stricter social distancing guidelines earlier this week, raising one notch from Level 1.5 to Level 2, the third-highest level on the country's 5-tier scale.
Under the regulations, which will remain in place for two weeks, gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited.
High-risk venues such as bars and nightclubs must suspend operations and restaurants have to stop serving food indoors at 9 p.m. Cafes are only allowed to offer takeout and delivery.
Other restrictions include limiting capacity at schools, churches and other public facilities and reducing public transportation after 10 p.m.
Seoul is planning to further tighten its antivirus restrictions after the city reported its new daily high of 213 cases Thursday, officials said.
"There appear to be blind spots that require further attention in the recent (coronavirus transmission) trend," disease control officer Park Yoo-mi said during a virtual press briefing Thursday, according to news agency Yonhap. "We plan to talk to experts starting today to come up with stronger measures."
South Korea's military also decided Thursday to take tougher measures after 70 cases were tied to a boot camp in the town of Yeoncheon near the border with North Korea. All troops are barred from taking vacations and making non-essential trips off of military installations
Government officials have continued to express concern about the upcoming College Scholastic Aptitude Test, a grueling, make-or-break entrance exam that almost half a million South Korean high school seniors are poised to take Dec. 3.
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae appealed to citizens Thursday for help in containing the outbreak so the test can run smoothly.
"With the hearts of the test takers' parents in mind, we earnestly ask you pause your usual social activities unless they are vital," she said at a televised press briefing. "Please cancel dinner appointments and year-end parties and wear a mask."
The KDCA's Lee said Thursday that health officials are anticipating daily cases would hover around the 400 to 600 range into early December.
However, he expressed optimism that South Korea would be able to get the virus under control once again.
"We believe if the social distancing measures are intensified and are practiced, starting from next week these numbers could subside," he said.
South Korea's total COVID-19 caseload rose to 32,318 Thursday, according to the KDCA. The country reported two additional deaths, bringing the total to 515.