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(3rd LD) S. Korea's virus cases surge to 346 on church services, cluster outbreaks at hospital

All Headlines 12:23 February 22, 2020

(ATTN: CHANGES headline; UPDATES with details and comments in paras 6, 8-9,14, last 3 paras; ADDS photo)

SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea reported 142 new cases of the new coronavirus on Saturday, the largest spike in a single day, bringing the total number of infections in the nation to 346.

The number of COVID-19 infections here has soared in the past days, with most new infections traced to a hospital in the southeastern county of Cheongdo and a minor Christian sect in the southeastern city of Daegu.

Of the 142 new cases, 92 are related to Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, where South Korea's first fatality occurred, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

A 63-year-old man, who died of pneumonia at the hospital on Wednesday, posthumously tested positive for the virus.

On Friday, another patient at Daenam Hospital died from COVID-19, the second death from the virus here.

So far, a total of 108 virus cases have been reported from the hospital.

Medical workers transfer a suspected coronavirus patient from Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, 320 kilometers southeast of Seoul, to another hospital on Feb. 21, 2020. Of about 600 patients and medical staff at the hospital, 16 tested positive for COVID-19, health authorities said. (Yonhap)

The public health agency said 38 new cases are tied to the minor Christian sect known as Sincheonji in Daegu, about 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province.

Daegu, where the 2.5 million inhabitants have been asked to stay indoors, and neighboring Cheongdo were designated as a "special management zone" on Friday. The nation's capital, Seoul, banned demonstrations in downtown areas.

So far, some 170 virus patients have been traced to the church's services.

The KCDC said it has placed a total of 9,336 Sincheonji members in self-quarantine. Among them, 544 people suspected of having contracted the virus are being tested for the virus.

The health authorities vowed to make more containment efforts as the potentially fatal illness spreads fast across the country.

Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo said Friday that the health authorities will allow hospitals to separate respiratory patients from others in an effort to prevent human-to-human transmissions at hospitals.

Health authorities will also check all pneumonia patients in Daegu hospitals, he said.

Still, the authorities said they will maintain the virus alert at the third-highest, or "orange," level, but the virus response will be carried out with an urgency appropriate to the "red" level.

Workers erect a temporary negative-pressure quarantine room outside a hospital in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Feb. 21, 2020, to accommodate suspected coronavirus patients waiting for their test results. (Yonhap)

"Community spread of infections began in some limited areas, and we believe that Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province are in a special situation," Vice Health and Welfare Minister Kim Kang-lip told reporters on Saturday.

In a sign that the virus may broadly spread nationwide, other provinces, including Jeju, Chungcheong and North Jeolla, reported cases. Gyeonggi Province also reported more new cases.

Three new virus cases were reported for the first time in Busan, the country's second-largest city with a population of 3.4 million. The city had been regarded as relatively free of the virus outbreak since the country reported the first case of COVID-19 on Jan. 20.

So far, South Korea has released 17 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals, the KCDC said.

The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 5,481, up from 3,180 a day earlier, the KCDC said. The country has tested a total of 19,621 suspected cases, with 13,794 testing negative.

Most virus-infected patients are stable, but about nine patients with underlying illness are in relatively critical conditions, the health authorities said.


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