S. Korea’s virus cases soar, Israel refuses entry to plane passengers

Workers wearing protective gears prepare to spray disinfectant as precaution at a market in Seoul. (AP pic)

SEOUL: South Korea’s confirmed cases of coronavirus jumped by 123 to 556 and its death toll rose to four on Sunday, with a majority of cases linked to a church in the southeastern city of Daegu.

More than half the additional cases were found to be linked to a Shincheonji Church of Jesus congregation in the southeastern city of Daegu after a 61-year-old woman known as “Patient 31” who attended services at the church tested positive for the virus last week. The woman had no recent record of overseas travel.

A majority of 309 or 55.6% of the total 556 confirmed cases were linked to the Shincheonji Church, Korea Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

“We are studying and carrying on preventive measures (against the virus) in Daegu, and keeping the possibility of a community spread in mind,” KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a news conference.

South Korea’s earlier cases were linked to China but the new infections centre on Daegu, a city of about 2.5 million, and a hospital in Cheongdo, a county with about 43,000 people.

In response to the recent sharp rise in cases, KCDC designated both the city of Daegu and Cheongdo county as “special care zones” on Friday.

Since the first outbreak on Jan 20, four have died from the virus in South Korea. The fourth patient who died on Sunday was a 57-year-old man who was at the Cheongdo hospital, KCDC said.

Travel advisory

The US State Department on Saturday raised its travel advisory level one notch for South Korea to Level 2 on a scale of 1 to 4, asking travellers to avoid contact with sick people amid the contagious virus spread in the country.

A total of 17 South Korean Catholics in North Gyeongsang Province and their tour guide in Seoul who had gone on a pilgrimage to Israel earlier this month were confirmed to have been infected with the virus, KCDC said.

Israeli and Palestinian authorities sought to allay fears of a potential local outbreak of the coronavirus after learning that South Korean pilgrims who had toured some of the holy land’s most popular sites were later found to be carrying the virus.

South Koreans on board a Korean Air flight were refused entry at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International airport on Saturday evening due to concerns over the virus spread, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

“As the measure was taken without notice in advance by Israel, we have lodged a complaint for causing inconveniences to our travellers and asked to prevent a recurrence,” said the ministry adding its Israeli counterpart promised to cooperate with South Korea.

Meanwhile, Catholic churches in the cities of Daegu, Gwangju and elsewhere have suspended mass and other gatherings.

“Devotees shouldn’t go to any risky places, or get full check-ups before going anywhere else if they did go to those places,” said Heo Young-moo, 88, who visited Myeongdong Catholic Church in the capital Seoul.

The coronavirus originated in China and has spread to more than two dozen countries. China has reported 76,936 cases and 2,442 deaths, according to data through Saturday.