South Korea declares new ‘special care zone’ as coronavirus spreads

Medical staff wearing protective gear move are seen at a hospital in Daegu on March 1, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea declared a "special care zone" on Thursday (March 5) around a second city hit hard by the coronavirus and the US military confirmed two new cases among relatives of its troops in the country, which is battling the biggest epidemic outside China.

Australia became the latest country to impose travel restrictions on South Koreans, with almost 100 nations now limiting arrivals from the East Asian country which reported 438 new coronavirus cases on Thursday for a total of 5,766.

The South Korean government declared a "special care zone"around Gyeongsan, a city of about 275,000 people that is located 250km south-east of Seoul, promising extra resources such as face masks and warning people from travelling there.

Gyeongsan has seen a spike in new cases, including at a nursing home. Similar zones have been declared around neighbouring Daegu city and Cheongdo County.

Around 75 per cent of all cases in South Korea are in and around Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city, where the flu-like virus that emerged from China late last year has spread rapidly through members of a religious group.

"Everyday is sad and tough like a war. But our Daegu citizens are showing surprise wisdom and courage," Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin told reporters on Thursday.

Officials said hospitals in the hardest hit areas were struggling to accommodate new patients. Daegu city officials said 2,117 patients were waiting for rooms in the city.

Dozens of newly commissioned military nurses were due to begin work in Daegu on Thursday, the health ministry said.

The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported three more deaths from the virus, bringing the total in the country to 35.

US Forces Korea (USFK) reported two new cases, for a total of six cases in soldiers, employees or people related to the roughly 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea.

Despite the new cases, USFK had resumed sending troops to bases in Daegu and surrounding areas, according to military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

Commanders believed the bases were protected from the outside population, and that the troop rotations were needed to maintain readiness in the face of continued threats from nuclear-armed North Korea, the newspaper reported.

Australia's move to ban the arrival of foreigners from South Korea is a blow to Seoul's efforts to prevent the United States from imposing such restrictions.

South Korean officials met the US ambassador in Seoul on Wednesday to urge the United States not to limit travel.

According to the US State Department, anyone with a fever of 38 deg C is already banned from boarding direct flights from South Korea to the United States.

Korean Air Lines said on Thursday it would screen all passengers departing Incheon airport for high temperatures and reject those deemed a risk.

South Korea sent three "rapid response" teams to Vietnam on Thursday to assist more than 270 citizens quarantined in that country over coronavirus concerns, the foreign ministry said.

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