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(LEAD) Daegu on alert as coronavirus cases surge

All News 15:48 February 20, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with details throughout; RECASTS dateline; ADDS photo)

SEOUL/DAEGU, Feb. 20 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean city of Daegu is on alert as concerns over the new coronavirus are peaking in line with a surge in patients, with many of them suspected of contracting the potentially fatal virus at a church associated with a minor religious sect.

On Thursday, South Korea reported 31 new cases of the COVID-19, bringing the total number of infections here to 82. The first case in the country was reported on Jan. 20.

The pace of new infections had slowed in the past couple of weeks, but this week the number shot up by more than 50, with most of the new cases in the southeastern city of Daegu and the surrounding North Gyeongsang Province.

Of the 82 cases, 48 cases were reported in the southeastern region, with 37 of the patients known to have attended a church service with the 31st patient, a 61-year-old woman who is presumed to have infected about 40 people so far.

Officials disinfect a church in Daegu on Feb. 20, 2020, where a patient spread the novel coronavirus COVID-19 to scores of others during Sunday services. (Yonhap)

The latest development has stoked fears of the virus spreading rapidly in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city and home to 2.4 million people. The combined population of the city and the adjacent North Gyeongsang Province is roughly 5 million.

Some of the city's busiest streets were unusually quiet except for some drugstores where people rushed to buy masks and hand sanitizers.

"The streets are so quiet. It's the first time I've seen Daegu this quiet," said a 50-year-old resident surnamed Kim.

Some were anxious about rumors that the government may consider a lockdown to stem the outbreak.

"Nobody thought locking down Wuhan, whose population is more than 10 million, would be possible," a 36-year-old office worker surnamed Lee said, mentioning the central Chinese city known as the epicenter of the virus.

"I don't think Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province are a safety zone," Lee said.

The government flatly denied the rumor Wednesday, adding it has not even considered such a plan.

A motorcycle drives through an empty road in Daegu on Feb. 20, 2020. (Yonhap)

To ward off the sprawling virus, the city has taken measures to temporarily shut down public libraries and has ordered kindergartens to suspend classes for the time being.

The Daegu High Court, among other public institutions, temporarily blocked some entrances to its compound and installed thermal cameras.

Major events have been called off or rescheduled, with a concert featuring BTS and other K-pop stars that was set for March 8 at Daegu Stadium postponed following the outbreak.

The city has also launched a probe into people who attended Sunday services at the Daegu unit of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, The Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.

Preliminary results showed that around 90 of some 1,000 people who were reportedly at the church on Feb. 9 and 16 reported symptoms of the virus. Meanwhile, 515 said they did not have symptoms, while the rest were unaccounted for.

The church's tight seating arrangement has raised concerns that it may have helped the virus travel quickly among the congregation.

Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin speaks at a press briefing at Daegu City Hall on Feb. 20, 2020. (Yonhap)

The provincial city, meanwhile, has asked for help in securing more hospital beds and medical personnel, with four of the five emergency units at university hospitals temporarily shut down following visits by people who were later confirmed as infected.

During his meeting with Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Wednesday, Daegu mayor Kwon Young-jin stressed the need for new strategies to tackle the contagious virus, voicing concerns over the outbreak spreading across the country.

He also asked for government support, such as opening up public facilities to quarantine people who are suspected of being infected by COVID-19, and urged the public to wear masks and refrain from unnecessary activities.

On Thursday, the government announced that it will be providing 2.5 billion won (US$2.1 million) in special funds to strengthen safety measures in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province.


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