South Korea raises disease alert to top level as virus cases soar

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea raised its infectious disease alert level to its highest for the first time since 2009 on Sunday as confirmed coronavirus cases jumped to 602 and the death toll rose to five.

More than half the new cases are linked to a church in the southeastern city of Daegu after a 61-year-old woman known as “Patient 31” who attended services there tested positive for the virus last week. The woman had no recent record of overseas travel.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday that the government had raised the country’s disease alert by one notch to the fourth and highest level in a bid to contain a surge in new cases.

The Korea Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (KCDC) said the number of infections jumped by 169 to 602 from a day earlier. Of the total confirmed cases, more than 300 were linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus congregation in Daegu.

The escalation in the alert level allows the government to send extra resources to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, which were designated “special care zones” on Friday.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said the alert level also enables the government to forcibly prevent public activities and order the temporary closure of schools.

The last time South Korea raised the alert level to the highest was 11 years ago during the Influenza A or H1N1 outbreak, Yonhap said.

South Korea’s earlier cases were linked to China but the new infections center on Daegu, a city of about 2.5 million, and a hospital in Cheongdo, a county with about 43,000 people.

“We are studying and carrying on preventive measures (against the virus) in Daegu, and keeping the possibility of a community spread in mind,” KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a news conference.

Since the first outbreak on Jan. 20, four have died from the virus in South Korea. The fourth patient who died on Sunday was a 57-year-old man who was at the Cheongdo hospital, KCDC said.

TRAVEL ADVISORY

The U.S. State Department on Saturday raised its travel advisory level for South Korea from 1 to 2, the second of four ratings, which asks travelers to avoid contact with sick people.

A total of 17 South Korean Catholics in North Gyeongsang Province and their tour guide in Seoul who had gone on a pilgrimage to Israel earlier this month were confirmed to have been infected with the virus, KCDC said

Israeli and Palestinian authorities sought to allay fears of a potential local outbreak of the coronavirus after learning that South Korean pilgrims who had toured some of the holy land’s most popular sites were later found to be carrying the virus.

South Koreans on board a Korean Air flight were refused entry at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International airport on Saturday evening due to concerns over the virus spread, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

“As the measure was taken without notice in advance by Israel, we have lodged a complaint for causing inconveniences to our travelers and asked to prevent a recurrence,” the ministry said, adding Israeli counterparts had promised to cooperate with South Korea.

Meanwhile, Catholic churches in the cities of Daegu, Gwangju and elsewhere have suspended mass and other gatherings.

The coronavirus originated in China and has spread to more than two dozen countries. China has reported 76,936 cases and 2,442 deaths, according to data through Saturday.

Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Chaeyoun Won and Dogyun Kim in Seoul and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Sam Holmes and Jacqueline Wong

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