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SEOUL, Feb. 26 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's confirmed cases of the new coronavirus approached 1,300 on Wednesday as health authorities started testing about 210,000 followers of a religious sect at the center of rapid infections here.
The 284 additional cases, the sharpest daily surge so far, brought the total infections to 1,261 from only 51 a week ago, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
South Korea confirmed its first new coronavirus case in a Chinese woman from Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus outbreak, on Jan. 20.
So far, 12 people have died in South Korea from the new virus that emerged in China, including a 73-year-old Korean man who was a follower of the religious sect in the southeastern city of Daegu and a 36-year-old Mongolian national who was hospitalized for a liver transplant here.
The number of new cases is expected to jump in the coming days as health authorities began testing members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus at the center of the rapid spread in other provinces.
By Wednesday, health authorities plan to complete the tests on about 1,300 members of the religious sect, out of some 9,000 believers belonging to the Daegu church, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters.
The government will secure 1,600 beds in Daegu and its neighboring areas by Sunday to cope with an anticipated surge in the number of people infected, Kim said.
The government also plans to send more health workers to Daegu, with 205 doctors and nurses volunteering to work in the virus-hit city, officials said.
The U.S. military in South Korea also said one of its soldiers tested positive for the new coronavirus, becoming the first U.S. soldier infected here.
About 80 percent of confirmed cases have come from two clusters of infections -- at a branch of Shincheonji Church in Daegu and a hospital in the neighboring county of Cheongdo. The cumulative number of confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang stood at 710 and 317, respectively, on Wednesday afternoon.
Of the 284 new cases, 234 are in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province. Daegu counted 167 new cases and North Gyeongsang reported 68 more cases.
A total of 147 Koreans and their Chinese family members were evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, to Korea via a charter flight on Feb. 12.
Of them, 144 people tested negative for the virus and will be discharged from an isolation center on Thursday, KCDC Director-General Jeong Eun-kyeong said. The remaining three people will undergo another test, she said.
Other major provinces and cities have also reported some infections, with Seoul reporting another eight cases, the KCDC said.
In another worrisome development, the total number of virus patients in Busan -- South Korea's second-largest city, with 3.5 million people -- rose to 58, with 23 patients linked to a Christian church in the Dongnae district.
The 23 patients of the Oncheon church in Busan are connected to a three-day church retreat that ended on Feb. 17, officials said. It is still unclear how they were infected with the virus.
Busan reported 16 new cases on Wednesday and Gyeonggi Province reported nine new cases Wednesday morning, the KCDC said.
Since raising the virus alert level to "red," the highest level, on Sunday, health authorities have focused on halting the spread of the virus in Daegu, the epicenter of the virus outbreak here, and North Gyeongsang Province.
Since the first infection was reported on Jan. 20, the pace of infections had not been alarming until Feb. 18, when a 61-year-old woman who is tied to the Daegu religious sect tested positive for the virus. It is still unclear how the woman contracted the virus. Over the past eight days, South Korea's confirmed cases have skyrocketed.
More than half of confirmed cases have been linked to Shincheonji's Daegu branch. Health authorities said the woman, who had not visited a foreign country recently, attended worship services at the branch on Feb. 9 and Feb. 16, although it is uncertain whether she was a "super spreader."
Fellow worshipers at the Daegu branch who attended the Feb. 16 service are believed to be tied to a sudden jump in the number of infections over the past week, health authorities said.
The number of confirmed cases linked to the church's worship services is estimated to be at least 600, according to the health authorities.
People are being asked to avoid non-essential meetings and work at home, with various sports events, concerts and public gathering canceled. All schools delayed their start of the spring semester by a week to March 9.
With untraceable virus infections emerging in other major cities, including Busan and Seoul, concerns are growing over new clusters of infections.
Jun Byung-yool, a professor of preventive medicine at the Cha University Graduate School of Medicine, said the new coronavirus is spreading faster than the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 swine flu, which triggered local transmission here about 70 days after the first case was confirmed.
"Although it is invisible, local transmission of COVID-19 is occurring," Jun said.
South Korea has released 24 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Wednesday, the KCDC said.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 20,716, it added. The country has tested a total of 52,292 suspected cases, with 31,576 testing negative.
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