By Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea kicked off a special two-week coronavirus prevention period on Thursday after the country's daily infection tallies mounted ahead of highly competitive annual college entrance exams.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 343 new coronavirus cases by Wednesday midnight, bringing the country's total infections to 29,654, with 498 deaths.
The daily tally has topped 200 for five consecutive days and surpassed 300 on Wednesday for the first time since August after a large outbreak at a church political rally.
Rising case numbers have fuelled worries among students and parents ahead of the annual college entrance exam, which plays a decisive role in education and career prospects.
Almost 500,000 high school seniors will sit for this year's exam on Dec. 3, the education ministry told Reuters.
The ministry called on all high schools nationwide to return to online classes a week prior to the exam and said it will temporarily disclose names of any cram schools and study cafes that experience infections during the period.
There are no reported cases of high school seniors with COVID-19 in the capital Seoul, and 153 of the total 230 high schools in the city are already holding online classes ahead of the exam, Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education told Reuters.
The ministry has secured 120 hospital beds in 29 medical facilities for students with COVID-19 ahead of exam day.
For students in quarantine, including those who had contacted COVID-19 patients, the ministry has secured at least 113 test centres and 754 individual test rooms, enough to accommodate 3,800.
The ministry said it will not disclose the exact number of high school seniors with coronavirus to prevent fear among the test-takers.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said South Korea stands at a critical crossroads of another massive outbreak.
"We should pull together in prevention measures to help our kids focus on the college entrance exam in a safe environment," Park told a meeting.
Starting Thursday, public gatherings of 100 people or more will be banned, religious services and sporting events will be limited to 30% of capacity, and high-risk facilities including clubs and karaoke bars must widen distance among guests.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Barbara Lewis.)