Coronavirus: South Korea raises alert to highest level as number of cases jumps to 602, with 5 deaths

Medical workers transporting a patient to a hospital in Chuncheon, South Korea, on Feb 22, 2020.
Medical workers transporting a patient to a hospital in Chuncheon, South Korea, on Feb 22, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) -  South Korea’s confirmed cases of coronavirus jumped by 169 to 602 and its death toll rose to five on Sunday (Feb 23), with a majority of cases linked to a church in the south-eastern city of Daegu.

Most of the additional cases were found to be linked to a Shincheonji Church of Jesus congregation in Daegu after a 61-year-old woman known as “Patient 31”, who attended services at the church, tested positive for the virus last week. The woman had no recent record of overseas travel.

More than 300 or 55 per cent of the total confirmed cases were linked to the Shincheonji Church, Korea Centres for Disease and Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

“We are studying and carrying on preventive measures (against the virus) in Daegu, and keeping the possibility of a community spread in mind,” KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a news conference.

The fifth death was a 56-year-old woman who died at Kyungpook National University Hospital in Daegue while being treated for the coronavirus, Yonhap news agency reported on Sunday.

South Korea’s earlier cases were linked to China but the new infections centre on Daegu, a city of about 2.5 million, and a hospital in Cheongdo, a county with about 43,000 people.

In response to the recent sharp rise in cases, KCDC designated both the city of Daegu and Cheongdo county as“special care zones” on Friday.

Since the first outbreak on Jan 20, four have died from the virus in South Korea. The fourth patient who died on Sunday was a 57-year-old man who was at the Cheongdo hospital, KCDC said.

TRAVEL ADVISORY

Singapore's Ministry of Health (MOH) has advised travellers to avoid non-essential travel to Daegu and Cheongdo. It also reminds the public to continue to exercise caution when travelling to the rest of South Korea.

The city state is also stepping up measures to prevent the spread of the virus from South Korea.

 
 
 

"In view of the heightened risk of transmission from travellers arriving from Daegu and Cheongdo, the multi-ministry task force has assessed that it is prudent to take additional precautionary measures to limit the potential risk that travellers arriving from these affected regions pose to Singapore," MOH said in a statement on Sunday.

"From 23 February 2020, the definition of suspect cases will be expanded to include persons with pneumonia or severe respiratory infection with breathlessness who had been to Daegu and/or Cheongdo of the Republic of Korea, within 14 days before onset of symptoms," it added.

The US State Department on Saturday also raised its travel advisory level one notch for South Korea to Level 2 on a scale of 1 to 4, asking travellers to avoid contact with sick people amid the contagious virus spread in the country.

CATHOLIC PILGRIMS INFECTED

A total of 17 South Korean Catholics in North Gyeongsang Province and their tour guide in Seoul who had gone on a pilgrimage to Israel earlier this month were confirmed to have been infected with the virus, KCDC  said.

Israeli and Palestinian authorities sought to allay fears of a potential local outbreak of the coronavirus after learning that South Korean pilgrims who had toured some of the holy land’s most popular sites were later found to be carrying the virus.

South Koreans on board a Korean Air flight were refused entry at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International airport on Saturday evening due to concerns over the virus spread, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

 
 
 

“As the measure was taken without notice in advance by Israel, we have lodged a complaint for causing inconveniences to our travellers and asked to prevent a recurrence,” said the ministry, adding that its Israeli counterpart promised to cooperate with South Korea.

Meanwhile, Catholic churches in the cities of Daegu, Gwangju and elsewhere have suspended mass and other gatherings.

“Devotees shouldn’t go to any risky places, or get full check-ups before going anywhere else if they did go to those places,” said Heo Young-moo, 88, who visited Myeongdong Catholic Church in the capital Seoul.

The coronavirus originated in China and has spread to more than two dozen countries. China has reported 76,936 cases and 2,442 deaths, according to data through Saturday.