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Virus Cases Balloon in South Korea     02/21 06:07

   Schools were shuttered, churches told worshipers to stay away and some mass 
gatherings were banned as cases of a new virus swelled Friday in South Korea, 
the newest front in a widening global outbreak.

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Schools were shuttered, churches told worshipers 
to stay away and some mass gatherings were banned as cases of a new virus 
swelled Friday in South Korea, the newest front in a widening global outbreak.

   The country said a total of 204 people were infected with the virus, 
quadruple the number it had two days earlier, as a crisis centered in China has 
begun strongly reverberating elsewhere.

   The multiplying caseload in South Korea showed the ease with which the 
illness can spread. Though initial infections were linked to China, new ones 
have not involved international travel.

   "We have entered an emergency phase," Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun said in 
televised comments at the start of a government meeting on the health 
emergency. "Our efforts until now had been focused on blocking the illness from 
entering the country. But we will now shift the focus on preventing the illness 
from spreading further in local communities."

   Daegu, a southeastern city of 2.5 million that is the country's fourth 
largest, emerged as the focus of government efforts to contain the disease 
known as COVID-19, and Chung promised support to ease a shortage in hospital 
beds, medical personnel and equipment. Mayor Kwon Young-jin of Daegu has urged 
residents to stay inside, even wearing masks at home, to stem further 
infection. 

   The first case in Daegu was reported on Tuesday. By Friday, the area had 153.

   Nationwide, the numbers told of a ballooning problem. There were 20 new 
cases reported Wednesday, 53 on Thursday and 100 on Friday.

   The central government declared a "special management zone" around Daegu on 
Friday, which didn't restrict movement of residents or supersede local 
officials' power but served as official recognition of the problem. A total of 
110 infections have been confirmed in Daegu and surrounding areas, including 
South Korea's first fatality from COVID-19.

   Most of those cases have been linked to a single house of worship, a branch 
of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where a woman in her 60s attended two 
services before testing positive for the virus.

   About 1,000 others who attended services with the woman have been isolated 
in their homes for screening, and health authorities say they're trying to 
monitor thousands of other church members.

   All 74 sites operated by the Shincheonji Church have been closed and 
worshipers have been told to instead watch services online for a sect whose 
leader claims to be an angel of Christ, but who is dismissed by many outsiders 
as a cult leader. Its teachings revolve largely around the Book of Revelation, 
a chapter of the New Testament known mostly for its apocalyptic foreshadowing.

   Health and city officials say the woman eyed as a potential transmitter at 
the church had contact with some 1,160 people, both at the church and at a 
restaurant and a hospital where she was treated for injuries from a car 
accident. That raised fears that South Korea --- which before Wednesday had 
recorded just 31 cases of the virus --- should brace for a further surge.

   "I hope South Korea will do everything to contain this outbreak at this 
early stage," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World 
Health Organization.

   Usually bustling downtown streets of Daegu were nearly deserted Friday as 
people wearing face masks lined up at clinics seeking testing. Crowds formed in 
supermarkets where shelves of ramen and curry were nearly bare. Eight hundred 
area schools, due to start a new academic year on March 2, delayed their 
openings by a week.

   "Panic is taking hold," said Daegu resident Huh Mi-yeon. "People are scared 
of any situation where they would run into another person."

   Elsewhere in the country, angst grew too. In the capital of Seoul, major 
downtown rallies were banned, and fears of the virus led many to avoid shops 
and restaurants and instead eat at home and order necessities online. Buses and 
subways were full of mask-clad commuters.

   The first three cases in the country's 600,000-member military also sprung 
up on separate bases Friday, bringing added concern. A sailor on Jeju Island 
and an army officer in North Chungcheong province both tested positive. Both 
had made recent visits to Daegu, officials said. A third infection was reported 
in an air force officer who is based in Daegu but who had recently traveled to 
military headquarters in central South Korea, the defense ministry said, 
prompting the quarantine of 80 soldiers there.

   Globally, more than 76,000 people have been infected in 27 countries, and 
more than 2,200 have died. Even as new alarms were sounded elsewhere in Asia, 
in China, where the vast majority of cases have occurred, officials have 
expressed optimism over the number of new infections, which has been trending 
downward. China said Friday 889 new cases were recorded in the preceding 24 
hours and 118 additional deaths.


(KR)

 
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