Photo shows a deserted gourmet street due to COVID-19 outbreak in Seoul, South Korea on Wednesday.— XINHUA/VNA Photo
SEOUL — South Korea reported another daily spike in the number of new infections of the new coronavirus on Thursday, and more additional cases are expected to be identified in the hardest-hit city of Daegu and its neighboring regions as virus tests started on more than 210,000 members of a religious sect at the center of the rapid spread.
The whopping 334 new cases took the nation's total infections to 1,595, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
A 74-year-old virus patient who is tied to the religious sect in Daegu died of respiratory failure earlier on Thursday, bringing the nation's death toll to 13.
More than half of newly confirmed cases came from a branch of a religious sect in the southeastern city of Daegu.
Of the 334 new cases, 307 are in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and four are in neighboring North Gyeongsang Province. The number of total infections in Daegu and North Gyeongsang stood at 1,017 and 321, respectively.
Other major provinces and cities have also reported some infections, with Seoul reporting another six cases, the KCDC said in a statement.
In an alarming sign that the novel coronavirus is spreading more widely in South Korea, the total number of cases in the capital of Seoul and Busan, the second-largest city, rose to 55 and 58, respectively.
Since raising the virus alert level to "red," the highest level, on Sunday, health authorities have focused on halting the spread of the virus in Daegu, the epicenter of the virus outbreak here, and North Gyeongsang Province.
Experts said the number of confirmed cases is expected to jump in the coming days as health authorities began testing more than 210,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus at the center of the rapid spread in other provinces.
South Korea confirmed its first new coronavirus case from a Chinese woman from Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus outbreak, on January 20, but the pace of infections had not been alarming until February 18, when a 61-year-old woman who is tied to the Daegu branch of Shincheonji tested positive for the virus.
Separately, the religious sect said 833 out of its 1,848 members who got tests in Daegu were confirmed to have been infected with the virus as of Wednesday. The remaining 7,446 members in Daegu were waiting for tests, it said.
With the virus outbreak worsening, the US State Department urged Americans not to travel to South Korea. US President Donald Trump said that it's not the right time to put additional travel restrictions on South Korea, but Washington could do so "at a right time."
In a joint statement on Thursday, the South Korean and US militaries said they have delayed annual joint military drills on the Korean Peninsula over the virus outbreak.
Despite concerns that the Korean economy will take a harder hit from the virus, the Bank of Korea kept its key rate unchanged but expanded its special loan programmes by 5 trillion won (US$4.1 billion) to 30 trillion won to boost liquidity.
South Korea has released 24 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Thursday morning, the KCDC said.
The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 21,097, it added. The country has tested a total of 56,395 suspected cases, with 35,298 testing negative. — YONHAP