South Korea to test all church members at center of coronavirus outbreak

SEOUL (Reuters) – The number of coronavirus cases in South Korea rose to 893 on Tuesday, as health authorities said they plan to test potentially more than 200,000 members of a church at the epicenter of the outbreak.

Employees from a disinfection service company sanitize the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, February 25, 2020. Yonhap via REUTERS

Of the new 60 cases reported on Tuesday, 16 were in the southeastern city of Daegu, where the church is located, and 33 from nearby North Gyeongsang Province, the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

South Korea also reported its ninth death from the virus, a patient from a hospital in North Gyeongsang Province.

On Tuesday, the leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus said it had agreed to provide authorities with the names of all its members in South Korea, estimated by media at about 215,000 people.

The government plans to conduct coronavirus tests on all of the members “as soon as possible” once it has the information, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

“We have constantly requested the list based on our assessment that it is essential to test all of the church members in order to contain the spread of the virus and relieve public anxiety,” the statement said.

The church, which has faced public criticism of its handling of the outbreak, asked the government to ensure the personal details in the lists do not become public.

“We have been actively cooperating with the government to prevent the spread of the virus and overcome the outbreak,” church founder and self-proclaimed messiah Lee Man-hee said in a letter posted online. Besides its members, the church would also check the people in training programs to become full members, he added.

“All of these will be implemented on the premise that the government takes steps to protect their personal information,” Lee said.

Around 60 percent of cases in South Korea have been linked to the outbreak at the church, where the first case was reported in a 61-year-old woman who contacted the virus from a still-unknown source.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, raised its warning level for South Korea and recommended Americans avoid all nonessential travel to the country, citing the “widespread, ongoing outbreak” of the coronavirus.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries said they were considering scaling back joint training due, in one of the first concrete signs of the virus’ fallout on global U.S. military activities.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Lincoln Feast.

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