U.S. urges its citizens not to travel to Daegu

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U.S. urges its citizens not to travel to Daegu

The U.S. State Department raised its travel advisory for Daegu to the highest level Saturday, urging Americans not to travel to the city in southeastern Korea where cases of the new coronavirus have been most concentrated.

Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Sunday in turn urged the United States to refrain from excessive travel measures as it may dampen bilateral exchanges.

Korea has confirmed over 3,700 coronavirus cases, with the most concentrated in Daegu and Cheongdo County in North Gyeongsang and linked to a religious sect, the Shincheonji church.

The U.S. State Department raised the advisory to Level 4, warning its citizens to “not travel” to Daegu “due to the level of community transmission of the virus and imposition of local quarantine procedures.” However, it continued to maintain a Level 3 advisory for the rest of Korea, urging Americans to “reconsider” visiting the country.

Just one week ago, the State Department raised its travel alert for Korea one notch to Level 2 in a four-tier system which urges travelers to exercise “increased caution.” The department again raised the alert to Level 3 on Wednesday.

Passengers from Korea will also be subject to health screenings before flying to the United States.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in charge of the White House coronavirus task force, announced in a press conference in Washington earlier Sunday that the United States will be expanding existing travel restrictions and barring the entry of any foreigner who has visited Iran within the last 14 days. He also urged Americans not to travel to “specific regions in Italy and Korea” that are “most affected by the coronavirus.”

Pence said that U.S. President Donald Trump also directed to work with its allies, Korea and Italy, to coordinate a “medical screening in their countries of any individuals that are coming into the United States” and that they “look forward to working with them in a collaborative and a cooperative way.”

Trump said “there’s no reason to panic at all” and assured that his administration has since the early stages of the outbreak “taken the most aggressive action in modern history to confront the spread of this disease.”

He referred to U.S. travel restrictions imposed on Jan. 31 on foreigners who had been to China in the past 14 days and called such “early” measures a “big lifesaver.”

The first death from the coronavirus was confirmed in the United States Saturday, a man in his 50s in the state of Washington.

When asked about concerns for the U.S. troops in Korea, Trump said, “We care very much for the troops” and that the United States is “in touch” with Korean authorities over the matter.

Seoul and Washington on Wednesday agreed to postpone indefinitely a combined command post training drill scheduled for March because of the coronavirus outbreak, the first time such an exercise was canceled over a health issue.

Last week, a U.S. soldier in Korea and his wife on Saturday tested positive for the virus.

Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha held a phone conversation with Stephen Biegun, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, and urged the United States to “refrain from taking excessive measures that could unnecessarily dampen exchanges between the two countries,” according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement.

She also explained that while the number of cases in Korea is increasing, Seoul, based on its strong diagnostic capacity, has been actively carrying out testing and is doing its upmost to provide relevant information to the public.

Biegun was said to have thanked Kang for the in-depth explanation and said the United States highly regards Korea’s transparent response.

It is unclear if Americans will be evacuated from the city of Daegu. The United States was the first country to airlift hundreds of its citizens from Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province, the epicenter of the virus, in early February. Americans were similarly evacuated off the Diamond Princess cruise ship on Feb. 17 after hundreds of passengers were confirmed positive for the virus. The ship was put under quarantine by Japanese authorities for two weeks in February off the coast of Yokohama, Japan.

While there are some 70 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, including 44 people who had been quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship and three people repatriated from China, there have also been several cases of reported community transmissions.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 472 people have been tested for the coronavirus as of Saturday. The United States has faced delays for testing for the virus after finding flaws in the CDC’s test kits distributed to states last month and instead getting state health departments to send all samples to the central CDC lab in Atlanta.

Korean health authorities, in contrast, has tested over 98,000 cases as of Sunday.

As of Sunday, some 78 countries and territories have implemented some form of entry bans on travelers coming from Korea or have strengthened quarantine measures on the country over the coronavirus scare, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.

So far, 36 countries have implemented a travel ban on foreign visitors who have been in Korea or in the Daegu and North Gyeongsang areas. Turkey and Angola are some of the latest countries to announce entry bans on travelers from Korea.

Nine Chinese provinces, as well as two cities - Shanghai and Tianjin - are also listed as having quarantine measures in places for travelers from Korea, who can generally expect 14 days of isolation either at a designated hotel or their place of residence.

The rapidly changing situation and sudden decisions by countries to restrict entry of passengers or flights out of Korea amid coronavirus concerns have put travelers in a difficult situation with instances of flights being turned back and passengers being stranded in airports.

Turkey as of Sunday has also halted all passenger flights to and from Korea, Italy and Iraq. It has already halted flights to and from Iran and China. Uzbekistan and Russia are also drastically reducing flights to and from Seoul.

After Turkey’s flight ban, 47 Koreans were left stranded at Istanbul Airport early Sunday.

An Asiana Air flight en route to Hanoi, Vietnam, from Incheon International Airport Saturday was unexpectedly barred from landing in the Vietnamese capital on Saturday and eventually had to turn back to Korea.

Vietnamese authorities would not allow the plane - which was carrying around 40 passengers - to land at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport for unexplained reasons.

Authorities called on the plane to land at the remote Van Don International Airport, three hours from Hanoi, instead. Pilots determined they couldn’t land at an unfamiliar airport and chose to turn back and return to Korea.

On Saturday, Vietnam suspended no-visa entries for Koreans for the first time since they were implemented in 2004. Vietnam has also banned the entry of all visitors who have been in Daegu and North Gyeongsang in the past 14 days.

The Korean Foreign Ministry summoned Vietnamese Ambassador to Seoul Nguyen Vu Tu Sunday and expressed “strong regret” over the flight being barred in Hanoi.

Amid concerns over the global spread of the coronavirus, Seoul has also been taking travel precautions. On Friday evening, Korean and Chinese education authorities agreed to advise students against returning to university in the other country. Some 33,000 Chinese students had been expected to return to Korea for the new school year.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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