SEOUL – South Korea said on Saturday that the number of new coronavirus cases in the country had doubled to 433, and officials suggested the tally could rise significantly as more than 1,000 people who attended a church at the center of the outbreak reported flu-like symptoms.
Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 142 new cases at a morning briefing and another 87 in the afternoon.
Of the new cases, most have been linked to outbreaks at a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu and a hospital in Cheongdo county. Also among the new cases were the first reported infections in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, and on Jeju, a resort island that’s a popular tourist draw.
KCDC designated both the city of Daegu, which has a population of 2.5 million people, and Cheongdo county, home to around 43,000 people, as “special care zones” on Friday. Officials sent military medical staff and other health workers, and extra resources, including hospital beds.
More than half of the national cases are linked to a 61-year-old woman known as “Patient 31” who attended religious services at a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. The woman had no recent record of overseas travel, authorities said. KCDC said on Saturday they had obtained a list of 9,300 people who had attended church services, around 1,200 of whom had complained of flu-like symptoms.
“We are conducting investigation based on the database … we have obtained,” KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong told reporters.
The church and Cheongdo hospital outbreaks may also be linked, as several church members attended a funeral at the hospital for the brother of the founder of the church this month. President Moon Jae-in has called for officials to investigate potential links.
Cases from the hospital surged near a hundred overnight, with all but two of the new infections from the hospital’s psychiatric unit.
“We think the patients had repeated exposure given the isolated facility of the psychiatric wards, where many patients share the same room,” KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong told reporters.
The hospital, which has around 600 patients and staff, has been closed and patients are being transferred to other facilities.
Two people have died in South Korea in the current outbreak; a woman in her 50s who was moved from to Busan for treatment and a 63-year-old man. Both were patients at the Cheongdo hospital.
Among the new cases confirmed on Saturday, two were in Busan, while one was on Jeju, a soldier stationed on the island who had come into contact with residents in the Daegu area. The government had banned all military personnel at a Daegu base from leaving the barracks.
In the capital of Seoul, thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday for regular weekend political rallies, despite the city’s mayor on Friday saying the gatherings would be banned as part of containment measures.
Seoul police said they were aware of the ban but that it would be an “abuse of power” for them to intervene. Police could only begin an investigation into the rallies if the city administration sued an individual or groups, an official said.
The coronavirus originated in China before spreading to some 26 countries and territories outside the mainland. The death toll in mainland China rose to 2,345 as of Friday with over 76,000 people infected.
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