South Korea’s confirmed coronavirus cases surged past 1,200 on Wednesday -- 37 days since the country’s first case was reported -- as the government struggles to contain community transmission of the virus.
The number of cases is expected to climb in the coming days, with municipalities testing over 210,000 followers of a minor Christian sect at the center of rapid infections here and potential new clusters of infections emerging outside Daegu.
A US solider stationed in Korea tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, marking the first such case.
Speaking at a parliamentary session Wednesday, Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo pointed to “a Korean who entered (the country) from China” as the biggest reason the coronavirus is spreading in the country, defending the government’s decision not to impose an entry ban on all of China.
As of Wednesday at 5 p.m., Korea had reported 1,261 cases and 12 deaths, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While some 81 percent, or 1,026 cases, were from Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, potential new clusters are emerging elsewhere.
Most of the cases can be traced to two major clusters of infections -- the Shincheonji Church of Jesus branch in Daegu and Cheongdo Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, North Gyeongsang Province.
Seven of those who have died from the coronavirus are linked to the Cheongdo Daenam Hospital. Two are members of Shincheonji’s Daegu branch. One other is a Mongolian national.
The government said it had secured a list of some 212,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, with municipalities to isolate those who have respiratory symptoms and run diagnostic tests for them, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said at a daily briefing.
The virus tests on all Shincheonji followers are to be completed within two weeks.
Among Shincheonji members of the Daegu branch, some 1,200 of those showing symptoms were to be all tested within the day, he said.
In Seoul, the number of infections increased by 12 to 49 on Wednesday alone.
Concerns are growing after a pastor at Myungsung Church was confirmed to be infected Tuesday. Health authorities identified some 348 people who had come into close contact with the pastor, who is believed to have joined a Feb. 15 service with about 2,000 in attendance.
Two more people were infected with the virus from Eunpyeong St. Mary’s Hospital, which accommodates 502 patients and 2,229 staff members, pushing up the number to seven.
Most of the cases in Busan are tied to the Oncheon Church. Some 150 people reportedly went on a two-day trip with a 19-year-old confirmed patient who is the son of a Wuhan resident.
In North Gyeongsang Province, one more person tested positive from the Cheongdo Daenam Hospital, bringing the total number to 114 as of Wednesday morning. Some 31 people -- including one flight attendant -- tested positive after making a group pilgrimage to Israel, while 25 cases were linked to three public welfare facilities.
The country saw a spike in infections over the past week, with the number of cases soaring from about 30 on Feb. 17 to 1,261 as of Wednesday. Korea now has the most infections outside China.
It is premature to predict when the coronavirus will reach its peak, Kim said at a briefing, defying the report from JPMorgan Chase that as many as 10,000 people could be infected in Korea by the peak next month.
Kim said Korea has a testing capacity of some 10,000 cases a day. However, he said the country faces a lack of medical personnel to run virus tests and hospital beds to isolate and treat confirmed patients.
Some 91 hospitals nationwide have been designated as “public relief” hospitals, where sections have been divided between those with respiratory illnesses and those without so that patients can visit hospitals without worrying about contracting the virus.
Day care centers across the nation will shut down from Thursday to March 8.
Governmental measures to stabilize the supply of masks went into effect Wednesday.
Exports of face masks are restricted to 10 percent of daily production, with more than 50 percent distributed through public channels. Some 3.5 million masks will be available for consumers starting Thursday -- 1.5 million at pharmacies and 2 million at post offices and Nonghyup Hanaro Marts.
Under a revised manual distributed to the public, the government recommended avoiding nonessential meetings and to work from home. It advised that events held in closed spaces or that attract large crowds be canceled or delayed.
Some 18 patients remained in critical condition as of Wednesday morning, according to the KCDC.
The number of people being checked for the virus stood at 20,716, as of Wednesday afternoon. The country had tested a total of 52,292 suspected cases, with 31,576 proving negative.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com