South Korea confirmed 813 new cases of coronavirus on Saturday, the largest increase to date for the country, bringing the national total to 3,150 infections with four additional deaths.
Authorities also reported the country’s first reinfection case – a 73-year-old woman who tested positive a second time after recovering from hospital last week.
The disease returned “after her immune system had declined,” said the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) official Kwon Jun-wook.
At least 10 cases of reinfection have already been reported in China, added Kwon.
More than 90 percent of the new cases have occurred in Daegu, the center of the country’s epidemic, and in the neighboring province of North Gyeongsang, the KCDC said in a statement.
Three women in the Daegu region and one man died from the disease, bringing the national death toll to 17, the statement added. All were 60 years of age or older.
The increase in the number of confirmed cases has resulted in the cancellation or postponement of many events as the epidemic hit the 12th largest economy in the world, including concerts by K-pop BTS superstars and the world tennis championships table by team.
The new school term has been delayed by a week nationwide while Daegu schools by three weeks, and the US and South Korean military have postponed the next joint exercises.
Auto giant Hyundai Motor has also suspended operations at one of its plants in Ulsan after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.
No quarantine in the whole city for the moment
While China reported 47 more deaths on Saturday, it registered 427 infections – fewer new cases than South Korea – as a result of unprecedented quarantine efforts that locked up tens of millions of people in cities most affected.
South Korean authorities have said they do not envisage city-wide quarantine for Daegu similar to the lockdown imposed on Wuhan.
Deputy Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said that among those who tested positive for the virus, 80% could be treated with medication because they had “mild symptoms”. He added that the others would need more advanced treatment in hospitals.
The streets of Daegu have been largely deserted for days, apart from long queues in the few shops with masks for sale.
Authorities urged the public to be cautious and anyone with fever or respiratory symptoms to stay at home.
Half of the cases linked to the Shincheonji church
But South Korea’s total is expected to further increase with the selection of more than 210,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secret entity often accused of being a cult linked to about half of the country’s cases.
A 61-year-old woman had a fever on February 10, but attended at least four religious services in Daegu – the country’s fourth city with 2.5 million residents – before being diagnosed.
Faced with public criticism, a spokesman for Shincheonji said that church members were victims of a “witch hunt”.
“I ask you to reject hatred and criticism of our members,” said the spokesperson in a video posted on the Shincheonji website.
Church members have also traveled abroad, raising fears of a wider infection. On February 23, Israel ordered the quarantine of 200 people, including 180 students and 19 staff from three separate schools, after they were near pilgrims visiting the Shincheonji church who were carrying the coronavirus .
South Korean tourists visited Israeli sites between February 8 and February 15, and upon their return home, 18 of them were found to be infected with the virus.
North Korean leader calls for tougher measures
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has warned senior party officials of the “serious consequences” of the failure to prevent an outbreak on their side of the border.
The impoverished nation, with a weak and ill-equipped health system, has closed its borders to prevent the spread of the disease on its territory.
At a meeting of the ruling party, Kim called on the country’s epidemic headquarters to step up screening and testing to isolate all of the “channels and spaces through which infectious disease could find its way,” said l the official Korean central press agency of Pyongyang, or KCNA, on Saturday.
Kim stressed that all fields and all units in the country should obey “unconditionally” the quarantine instructions established by the anti-epidemic headquarters. He called for the strict application of preventive measures against what he described as a delicate virus that spreads quickly.
“If the infectious disease spreading uncontrollably finds its way into our country, it will have serious consequences,” said Kim KCNA at the meeting of the political bureau of the Workers’ Party.
The North has yet to report its first infection with the new coronavirus, but has pushed through a difficult campaign which he described as a matter of “national existence”. The country has closed almost all cross-border traffic, banned tourists, stepped up screening at ports of entry and mobilized tens of thousands of health workers to monitor residents and isolate those with symptoms.
The virus has spread rapidly around the world in the past week, dragging stock markets to their lowest level since the 2008 global financial crisis, fearing the disease would wreak havoc in the global economy.
More than 2,900 people have died and more than 85,000 have been infected worldwide since it was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in China late last year.