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(5th LD) S. Korea's virus cases top 7,000; mass infection-hit apartment in Daegu under lockdown

All Headlines 17:28 March 07, 2020

(ATTN: RECASTS headline; UPDATES lead with latest figures)

SEOUL, March 7 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's virus cases topped 7,000 on Saturday with most new virus infections in the southeastern city of Daegu, the epicenter of the virus outbreak here, and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province.

A virus-hit apartment in Daegu was placed under lockdown as one third of its residents were infected with the novel coronavirus and traced to a religious sect related to most infections here.

The country reported 274 new cases of the novel coronavirus over the past 16 hours, bringing the nation's total number of infections to 7,041, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

So far, 44 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, have died in South Korea from the respiratory virus that emerged in China late last year,

A total of 36 are in critical condition, while 118 have been released, up 10 from a day earlier, after fully recovering from the novel coronavirus, the KCDC added.

Health officials enter the health ministry in Sejong on March 7, 2020, after a public servant working for the ministry was diagnosed with COVID-19. (Yonhap)

Of the 483 new cases, which were detected on Friday, a majority were reported in the country's southeastern region. Daegu and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province reported 390 and 65 more cases, respectively, according to the KCDC.

The total cases in the two hardest-hit regions reached 6,133, accounting for 90.6 percent of the total infections here, with some 5,000 virus patients coming from Daegu.

Other major provinces and cities have also reported some infections, with Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi Province reporting three and 10 more cases, respectively. Cases in North Chungcheong Province also increased by five.

Also among the cases was a pregnant woman in the southeastern port city of Busan.

The 38-year-old, who is in her second trimester, is assumed to have contracted the virus from her husband who was confirmed as a patient while working in Daegu.

In Sejong, a public servant who works at the government complex where around 15,000 people commute, tested positive.

By infection route, those from group infections, such as religious services, hospitals and welfare facilities, accounted for 72.8 percent of the total, according to the KCDC.

Concerns over group infections further rose after residents at an apartment in Daegu were put into group isolation following mass infections at the residential complex.

"A lot of the residents at the apartment were found to be relatively young Shincheonji followers. (The apartment) has been put under isolation on the possibility that additional cases may occur," KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook said.

Daegu city authorities said 46 out of the 142 residents at the city-run apartment for unmarried women were confirmed to have been infected.

They added that 94 of the residents, including the 46 who tested positive, were members of Shincheonji, the religious sect at the center of cluster infections in the city.

A total of 63.5 percent of the country's infections are linked to Shincheonji, the fringe religious sect that is known to have more than 210,000 members nationwide.

This photo taken on March 7, 2020, shows an apartment complex in Daegu that has been under isolation after mass infections of the new coronavirus broke out among its residents. (Yonhap)

The country's health authorities said they plan to focus on potential cases among non-Shincheonji followers in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million.

Since raising the virus alert level to "red," the highest level, on Feb. 23, health authorities have focused on halting the spread of the virus in Daegu and North Gyeongsang.

Health authorities, however, have recently shifted their focus to testing ordinary citizens in Daegu, citing an alarming level of community spread in the city.

"With over 90 percent of Shincheonji followers tested, infections in Daegu are showing signs of stabilizing as tests of high-risks groups are mostly complete," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip told reporters. "However, the situation is not easy as 9 to 10 percent of ordinary citizens have tested positive."

Kim said the health authorities are also putting in more efforts to contain secondary and tertiary transmissions by identifying transmission routes. Earlier in the day, the Daegu city government imposed an administrative order for Shincheonji followers to be tested.

The vice minister urged cooperation in containing the virus in areas outside of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, citing that the next few days are likely to be "critical."

"Nationwide infections in areas outside of special care zones have stagnated, but to make a clear judgment, the next few days will be critical," Kim said.

People wait in line to buy masks in front of a local supermarket in the southeastern city of Daegu on March 7, 2020. (Yonhap)

The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 19,620 as of Friday, down 2,212 from the day before, the KCDC said. The country has tested a total of 171,422 suspected cases, with 151,802 testing negative.

Currently, there is no evidence that the new coronavirus is airborne. The World Health Organization said the virus is transmitted through droplets or close contact. The best measures to protect yourself from the virus are to wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds and avoid mass gatherings, health officials said.

mlee@yna.co.kr
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