SEOUL - South Korea 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 on Thursday (Feb 20) 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.
Fifty-three new cases overall were reported on Thursday, most 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, where Patient 31 attended church services and visited a hospital before testing positive.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 church members, attendees are required to sit closely on the floor and sing songs with their arms around one another. The church has been said to be a cult.
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. He also asked the government to support contingency plans, such as the use of public facilities for quarantines.
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.
On Thursday, South Korea announced it will set aside a special fund worth 2.5 billion won (S$2.9 million) to strengthen 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, against the outbreak. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in a phone call on Thursday to exchange clinical data and work closely regarding quarantine measures.
Of the new cases revealed on Thursday, 15 are linked to Cheongdo Daenam Hospital, where the first death linked to the coronavirus was reported. 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 did not leave it in the past month and had no visitors.
But as Patient 31 had visited Cheongdo early this month, investigators are studying if she could be linked to infections in the hospital.
As of Thursday, South Korea had tested 13,098 people for the virus, with 1,860 under quarantine. Sixteen have recovered and been discharged from hospital.