(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead; UPDATES throughout)
SEOUL, Feb. 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Sunday reported its fifth death from the new coronavirus with the number of the total confirmed cases spiking to 602, forcing the country to raise the virus alert to highest level.
Despite its stepped-up quarantine efforts, the country added two more deaths and 169 additional cases -- a development that deepened fears of contagion across the country.
The fifth death was from the southeastern city of Daegu where more than 300 people traced to church services are confirmed to have contracted the potentially deadly virus.
The 56-year-old woman died at Kyungpook National University Hospital, while being treated for the novel coronavirus.
The fourth victim of the novel virus was confirmed to be infected on Wednesday. The patient in his late 50s suffered from serious pneumonia before being infected with the novel coronavirus.
Three of the coronavirus deaths were from Daenam Hospital in the southeastern city of Cheongdo, where the country's first COVID-19 fatality took place and more than 110 people, including nine medical staff, were found to be infected.
Amid the rise in the number of deaths and infections, the country raised the virus alert level to "red," the highest in its four-tier system, for the first time in more than a decade.
"The COVID-19 incident has been confronted by a grave watershed," President Moon Jae-in said. "A few days from now is a very important moment."
The most cases of COVID-19 infections most cases centered around a religious organization in the country's fourth-largest city of Daegu and the neighboring Daenam Hospital.
On Friday, South Korea declared that Daegu and its adjacent county Cheongdo are "special care zones."
Of the 169 new cases, 95 are related to worship services of the Shincheonji church in the southeastern city of Daegu, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
The number of cases that can be traced to the church services reached 329, accounting for more than half of the total cases here.
More than 110 new cases were in Daegu, which has a population of roughly 2.5 million, with 25 new virus incidents reported in the surrounding North Gyeongsang Province, it added.
Authorities said they have acquired a list of members from the Daegu-based Shincheonji church and are closely monitoring them.
The KCDC earlier said it has placed more than 9,334 Shincheonji members in self-quarantine. Of them, 1,248 have shown COVID-19-related symptoms.
From North Gyeongsang Province, 18 out of 39 Catholic pilgrims who recently made a group pilgrimage to Israel have been confirmed to be infected with the new coronavirus.
Gwangju and Jeju also reported several new cases each, while the southern port city of Busan reported eight more virus patients, in a sign that the virus may spread quickly nationwide.
The total number of cases from Busan reached 13.
South Korea confirmed its first new coronavirus case from a Chinese woman from Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus outbreak, on Jan. 20.
The country's 31st patient, a probable "super spreader," had attended Shincheonji's worship services in Daegu.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, in a rare public message on Saturday night, reassured people that the virus can be contained if the public cooperates with the government's instructions.
Seven patients with underlying illnesses are in relatively critical conditions, with three of them on life support, the health authorities added.
The youngest virus patient in the country was also reported earlier in the day. The 4-year-old child attended a day care center, where a teacher was also infected with the virus.
The child is currently in a stable condition, with medical experts currently making efforts to provide necessary treatments, the KCDC said.
Two children have been infected with the novel virus so far, with the other 11-year-old child diagnosed with the disease on Wednesday.
The KCDC said South Korea is carrying out around 5,000 to 6,000 tests every day.
It also ruled out rumors that the country is short of medical supplies to treat COVID-19, including the anti-HIV medication Kaletra.
South Korea will maintain efforts to keep a stable supply of such pharmaceutical goods, it added.
The country's health authorities earlier advised local hospitals to use Kaletra or Chloroquine -- used to treat malaria -- for patients of the new coronavirus.
South Korea has released 18 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Sunday morning, the KCDC said.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 8,057, it added. The country has tested a total of 26,179 suspected cases, with 17,520 testing negative.
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