Coronavirus: South Korea reports first virus death, as cases double

Bedridden man is country's first fatality; many new cases traced back to churchgoer

Workers from a disinfection service company sanitise a street in front of a branch of the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony in Daegu, South Korea, on Feb 19, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

South Korea has reported its first death from the coronavirus, amid growing fears of widespread infection as the number of cases doubled to 104.

The health authorities said yesterday that a 63-year-old Korean man who had been bedridden for more than 20 years at a hospital in the south-eastern city of Cheongdo had a positive test result for the virus a day after he died of pneumonia-like symptoms.

The hospital started conducting tests for the coronavirus on all patients after two cases were found there on Wednesday.

Yesterday, 53 new cases overall were reported, many of whom could be traced back to Patient No. 31 - a 61-year-old Korean woman from the south-eastern city of Daegu who tested positive for the virus on Tuesday despite having no recent travel history and no contact with previous cases. She has been labelled a "super spreader".

Twenty-eight new cases were from the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which Patient 31 attends. This cluster now has 42 cases.

Around 1,000 people go to this branch of the church, which has 12 branches and some 200,000 followers across the country.

Critics say the way it conducts services could have aided the spread of the virus. According to former members, attendees are required to sit closely on the floor and sing songs with their arms around one another.

A survey conducted by the government showed that some 90 churchgoers developed symptoms of the virus after attending the same service as Patient 31.

The church has since suspended all services and gatherings.

Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin has urged the city's 2.5 million residents to stay indoors and refrain from going outside, in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. Major events in the city have been rescheduled, including a concert featuring K-pop group BTS to be held at Daegu stadium on March 8.

Yesterday, South Korea announced it will set aside a special fund worth 2.5 billion won (S$2.9 million) to boost measures against the virus in Daegu and the surrounding North Gyeongsang province.

The country will also strengthen cooperation with China, where the virus originated and has killed over 2,000 people, to fight the outbreak. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in a phone call yesterday to exchange clinical data and work closely on quarantine measures.

Of the new cases revealed yesterday, 15 are linked to Cheongdo Daenam Hospital, which reported the first coronavirus death. The psychiatric hospital is located in North Gyeongsang province.

It is not known yet how the virus spread in the hospital, as the first two diagnosed cases are patients who have not left the hospital in the past month and had no visitors.

But as Patient 31 had visited Cheongdo early this month, investigators are seeing if she could be linked to infections in the hospital.

As of yesterday, South Korea has tested 13,098 people for the virus, with 1,860 under quarantine.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: South Korea reports first virus death, as cases double. Subscribe