Korea's virus cases surge to 433 on church services, cluster outbreak at hospital

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Korea's virus cases surge to 433 on church services, cluster outbreak at hospital

South Korea's confirmed cases of the new coronavirus more than doubled in a day to 433 on Saturday, led by two clusters of infections at a religious organization in Daegu and a neighboring hospital.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, in a rare public message on Saturday night, reassured people that the virus, which emerged in China, can be contained if the public cooperates with the government's instructions.

Chung apologized for recent spikes in infections and urged people to refrain from attending mass gatherings, including religious services, to prevent the virus from more widely spreading.

The number of COVID-19 infections here has soared this week, with most infections traced to the hospital in the southeastern county of Cheongdo and a minor Christian sect in the southeastern city of Daegu, which constitute some 80 percent of the total infections here.

Daegu, where the 2.5 million inhabitants have been asked to stay indoors, and neighboring Cheongdo were designated as a "special management zone" on Friday.

Of the 229 new cases, 95 are related to Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, where South Korea's first coronavirus fatality occurred, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

A 63-year-old man, who died of pneumonia at the hospital on Wednesday, posthumously tested positive for the virus.

On Friday, another patient died from the coronavirus at a hospital in Busan after being transferred from Daenam Hospital, the second death from the virus in South Korea.

The public health agency said 62 new cases are tied to the minor Christian sect known as Shincheonji in Daegu, about 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province and other areas.

So far, a total of 114 virus cases -- nine hospital staff and 102 patients -- have been reported from Daenam Hospital, and so-called cohort isolation, the shutdown of an entire medical institution to prevent the spread of an infectious disease, was in place for the hospital, according to the health authorities.

The health authorities said 231 virus patients have been traced to the Shincheonji church's services in Daegu, according to the KCDC.

The KCDC said it has placed a total of 9,336 Shincheonji members in self-quarantine. Among them, 544 people suspected of having contracted the virus are being tested for the virus.

The country's 31st patient, a probable "super spreader," had attended the church's worship services in Daegu, and the 61-year-old South Korean woman, who tested positive for the virus earlier this week, is believed to have infected others.

But the health authorities said earlier that it is uncertain whether the patient is the source of the cluster outbreak.

The health authorities vowed to make more containment efforts as the potentially fatal illness spreads fast across the country.

The heath ministry said it will allow hospitals to separate respiratory patients from others in an effort to prevent human-to-human transmissions and will also check all pneumonia patients in Daegu hospitals.

Despite the surge in the number of infections here, the authorities said they will maintain the virus alert at the third-highest, or "orange," level, but the virus response will be carried out with an urgency appropriate to the "red" level.

"Community spread of infections began in some limited areas, and we believe that Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province are in a special situation," Vice Health and Welfare Minister Kim Kang-lip told reporters on Saturday.

In a sign that the virus may further spread nationwide, other provinces, including Jeju, Chungcheong and North Jeolla, reported cases. Gyeonggi Province also reported more new cases.

Four virus cases were reported in Busan, South Korea's second-largest city with a population of 3.4 million, the first cases in the city since the country reported the first case of COVID-19 on Jan. 20.

So far, South Korea has released 18 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals, the KCDC said.

The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 6,037 up from 5,481 on Saturday morning, KCDC said. The country has tested a total of 21,153 suspected cases, with 15,116 testing negative.

Most virus-infected patients are stable, but about nine patients with underlying illnesses are in relatively critical conditions, the health authorities said.

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