S. Korea's virus cases top 5,600, $9.8 bln stimulus package unveiled to stem fallout

Jay Yim, March 4, 2020, 10:33 a.m.


South Korea's coronavirus caseload rose above 5,600 on Wednesday, with the outbreak in the southeastern city of Daegu, the hotspot here, showing little sign of a slowdown. The country unveiled an extra budget of 11.7 trillion won (US$9.8 billion) to help fight the virus and mitigate the economic fallout.

The 293 new cases, which were identified over the past 16 hours on Wednesday, brought the nation's total number of infections to 5,621, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

Wednesday's additional cases followed 516 news cases detected on Tuesday, 600 new cases on Monday, the nation's sharpest daily spike of 1,062 on Sunday and 813 on Saturday.

So far, 33 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, have died in South Korea from the respiratory virus that emerged in China late last year, the KCDC said.

Earlier in the day, Daegu reported the nation's 33rd fatality from the virus, a 67-year-old woman who had no underlying illness. KCDC Director-General Jeong Eun-kyeong said the woman died at a hospital after her pneumonia, caused by COVID-19, worsened.

Unveiling the extra budget, which is subject to approval from the National Assembly, Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said 2.3 trillion won will be allocated to offer more medical equipment, hospital beds and facilities for patient treatment.

President Moon Jae-in canceled his planned visits to the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey this month to focus on the fight against the virus, presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok said.

About 60 percent of confirmed cases have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city, with a population of 2.5 million.

However, health authorities have shifted their focus to testing ordinary citizens in Daegu, citing an alarming level of community spread.

Of the 516 new cases detected on Tuesday, 405 are in Daegu and 89 are in neighboring North Gyeongsang Province, the two epicenters of the virus outbreak here, the KCDC said. The total confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang stood at 4,006 and 774, respectively.

Six Korean people, as well as the Japanese spouse of one, who were brought back to South Korea last month from a virus-hit cruise ship in Japan, will be released from their two-week quarantine, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters.

Twenty virus patients at the Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, near Daegu, were also declared cured, Kim said. A total of 119 patients and medical staff at the hospital had been infected with the virus.

With the number of virus patients in Daegu skyrocketing, the city's hospital beds have been overwhelmed.

A total of 373 patients who have shown mild symptoms have been admitted to three state-run isolation facilities in Daegu and neighboring North Gyeongsang, Kim said. By the weekend, about 2,000 patients in the two areas will be admitted to such isolation facilities.

Aside from Daegu and North Gyeongsang, cases of community spread with unknown origins, mostly cluster and sporadic outbreaks, are gradually on the rise. Seoul's confirmed cases rose by one to 99, with 14 cases linked to Eunpyeong St. Mary's Hospital in Eunpyeong Ward. Another 12 cases in Seoul came from an apartment building in Seongdong Ward.

Virus cases in Busan rose by three to 93, with 33 patients linked to a Christian church in the Dongnae district and another nine patients linked to Shincheonji. The 33 patients of the Oncheon church in Busan are tied to the church's three-day retreat that ended on Feb. 17, officials said. It is still unclear how they were infected with the virus.

In the central cities of Cheonan and Asan, 55 of the total 81 patients came attended a Zumba dance class in Cheonan, officials said.

Jeong, the KCDC chief, told reporters that 65.6 percent of the total infections in South Korea came from clusters of infections. An epidemiological survey of the remaining cases is under way, Jeong said.

As virus tests on Shincheonji followers who show symptoms have been completed, Jeong said the KCDC will step up epidemiological surveys on sporadic cases with unknown origins in other regions.

New clusters of infections in other regions may be linked to Shincheonji's Daegu branch, Jeong said. About 9,000 Shinchenji followers who have shown no symptoms are under self-isolation.

Jeong suggested that aggressive testing on Shincheonji followers might have stopped the virus from spreading more widely nationwide.

Jeong, the nation's front-line commander-in-chief in the battle against the virus, assessed that the overall number of new infections, except in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, showed signs of declining as tests on Shincheonji followers have been completed.

Jeong renewed calls for people to refrain from going outside or attending gatherings and to work from home, while strictly following standard precautions such as hand washing and coughing etiquette.

Since raising the virus alert level to "red," the highest level, on Feb. 23, health authorities have focused on halting the spread of the virus in Daegu and North Gyeongsang.

According to the central government and Daegu city, about 2,300 confirmed cases in Daegu are tied to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. About 11,000 ordinary citizens there with no connection to Shincheonji have undergone tests and 1,300 have tested positive for the virus.

Following the report of the first case in South Korea on Jan. 20, the pace of infections had not been alarming until Feb. 18, when a 61-year-old woman linked to the Shincheonji sect in Daegu tested positive for the virus.

Since then, the nation has seen an explosion in infections and has accelerated virus tests on potential cases.

South Korea has released 41 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Tuesday, up 7 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.

The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 28,474 as of Tuesday, down 7,141 from the day before, it added. The country has tested a total of 131,379 suspected cases, with 102,965 testing negative.

Currently, there is no evidence that the new coronavirus is airborne. The World Health Organization said the virus is transmitted through droplets or close contact. The best measures to protect yourself from the virus are to wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds and avoid gatherings, health officials said.

To help raise awareness of the virus among foreigners in South Korea, Arirang TV and the state-run Korea Culture and Information Service (KOCIS) said they are offering simultaneous English-language translation services on daily media briefings by health authorities via Arirang TV's YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/arirang) and KOCIS' website (www.korea.net).

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