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(LEAD) S. Korea raises virus alert level to 'highest' as cases spike

All News 16:32 February 23, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with remarks on religious sect, other details from 5th para; ADDS photo)

SEOUL, Feb. 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea said Sunday it has decided to raise its alert level against the COVID-19 virus to "highest" in its latest heightened response to the confirmation of hundreds of additional cases over the weekend.

"The COVID-19 incident has been confronted by a grave watershed," President Moon Jae-in said as he publicly announced the measure. "A few days from now is a very important moment."

President Moon Jae-in (C) speaks at an inter-agency meeting on COVID-19 at Government Complex Seoul on Feb. 23, 2020. (Yonhap)

He said the government would strengthen the overall response system by raising the alert level by one notch to the highest of "red," speaking at an inter-agency government on responding to the outbreak that was held at Government Complex Seoul.

The president said the government and the local authorities should not hesitate to take "unprecedented powerful" measures to contain the viral disease without being limited by "regulations."

He mentioned a minor Christian sect, known as Shincheonji. Its church in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, is viewed as an epicenter of many infections reported over the past few days.

The 31st reported patient infected with the virus, a woman in her 60s, is presumed to have attended lengthy crowded worship services at the church in Daegu before testing positive for the virus last week. The number of confirmed cases in South Korea, mostly in Daegu and the nearby town of Cheongdo, have since shot up to over 556 as of Sunday morning.

Moon pointed out that health authorities are taking "special" steps in connection with the followers of Shincheonji, meaning "new world" in Korean.

The government is trying to trace all of the members for virus tests.

Closing facilities related to Shincheonji and limiting its members' activities nationwide are unavoidable measures to protect public health and safety, not seeking to restrict religious freedom, Moon said.

He requested cooperation by Shincheonji followers, asking the public to refrain from engaging in collective events for the time being.

"Although the situation is grave, we can overcome it," he emphasized. "The government has adequate ability and confidence to control and manage the spread of the infectious disease. Trust and cooperation are the way to win the fight against the virus."

lcd@yna.co.kr
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