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Seoul raises virus alert level to ‘highest’

South Korea reports more deaths as coronavirus cases spike; Reopening of schools delayed by one week

Feb. 23, 2020 - 16:00 By Ock Hyun-ju


South Korea raised its alert level for the COVID-19 virus to the highest level Sunday, as the country reported additional deaths from the new coronavirus and a further spike in infections. 

As of Sunday afternoon, the number of infections surged by 169 to 602, with most of the new cases traced to the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of deaths from COVID-19 rose to six, with three more deaths reported Sunday. 

“The COVID-19 situation is facing the grave turning point. The next days are very crucial,” President Moon Jae-in said at a pan-national meeting on responding to the virus outbreak.

The government will step up efforts to rein in the spread of the virus by raising the four-tier alert level by one notch to the highest “red” level, marking the first time since the outbreak of Influenza A (H1N1) in 2009.

“There is a possibility of the virus spreading nationwide,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said at a briefing Sunday, adding “proactive response is needed” given the rapid speed at which the virus is spreading.

Under the highest-level alert, issued when the virus starts to spread nationwide, the government will set up a pan-national control tower headed by Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun. The control tower has a mandate to take such measures as restricting operation of public transport, temporarily closing schools, reducing the number of flights and banning large-scale events.

The Ministry of Education said the start of the new semester for kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools as well as special schools will be delayed by one week to March 9.

Cases of the disease have skyrocketed here in the past few days, having seen a twelvefold increase from 51 on Wednesday to 602 as of 4 p.m. Sunday.

Out of the 602 infections, 329 cases have been traced to the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church and at least 112 cases were linked to the Daenam hospital in Cheongdo. Three of the five deaths were linked to the hospital.

Seven of the patients were in critical condition as of Sunday afternoon, the KCDC said.

The death rate in Korea from COVID-19 stands at 0.8 percent.

Of 169 new cases confirmed Sunday afternoon, 95 were tied to the church, with 75 of them being Daegu residents. Health authorities are trying to identify the infection routes for the rest of the patients.

The KCDC said it is checking the health status of 9,336 members of the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church, with the members being placed in self-isolation. More than 1,200 people on the list reportedly said they had suspicious symptoms, and 293 of those people were tested for the virus. Some 61 doctors were dispatched to carry out virus screening tests for the rest of them by Monday, the agency said.

Moon asked the public, religious groups and civic organizations to refrain from engaging in collective events for public safety.

Meanwhile, a 4-year-old girl was diagnosed with the coronavirus in Daegu on Sunday. She is youngest patient in the country so far.

Though most of those infected with the virus, 494 people, have been from Daegu or North Gyeongsang Province, cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in nearly every part of the country over the weekend, including Busan, Ulsan, Jeju Island and Gangwon Province.   

In Seoul, a second case was confirmed at Eunpyeong St. Mary’s Hospital on Sunday morning. The 63-year-old male patient is believed to have contracted the virus from a 35-year-old hospital worker, who tested positive Friday. That hospital worker came into contact with 302 people, according to the health agency.

Ulsan is also on alert as a 27-year-old woman, at the center of the first confirmed case in the city, joined a service Feb. 9 at the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, and another at the Ulsan branch on Feb. 16. The municipality said it will check church members for infection.

In Busan, the number of those infected with the virus rose to 17 as of Sunday noon, with at least eight of them linked to a church in Busan. The patients went on a two-day workshop in a group of about 150, according to the Busan City government.

In Gwangju, six more people were infected with the virus as of Sunday morning. All those cases have been traced to the Shincheonji Church in Daegu.

North Gyeongsang Province reported 25 more infections as of Sunday morning. At least 18 of those infected had made a group pilgrimage to Israel earlier this month and were later confirmed to be infected with the virus.

Daegu and Cheongdo were designated as “special care zones” Friday.

Some 8,057 people were awaiting test results as of Sunday afternoon. 

By Ock Hyun-ju (