South Korea saw the number of the novel coronavirus cases surpass 3,100 with 17 deaths on Saturday afternoon, with the coming days until early March considered a watershed for the country’s efforts to contain community spread of the deadly virus.
As of Saturday afternoon, the number of infections climbed by 813 - the biggest spike in a single day since the first case was reported in late January -- to 3,150, with most cases confirmed in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of the newly identified cases, 657 cases, or 80 percent of the total cases, were reported in the country’s southeastern city of Daegu. Some 79 were from North Gyeongsang Province surrounding Daegu and 15 each from Seoul and Busan.
“The proportion of confirmed cases among members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus’ Daegu branch is considerably high,” Health and Welfare Vice Minister Kim Gang-lip said at the briefing, adding the number of cases from Daegu was expected to continue to rise quickly in the coming days.
The government is testing some 210,000 members of the minor religious sect Shincheonji Church of Jesus, at the center of the spread of the country’s virus outbreak. That tally does not include some 100,000 trainees and overseas members. Some 53.1 percent of total cases are traced to the Daegu branch, according to government data.
More coronavirus cases are likely to be confirmed among members of the secretive religious sect’s Daegu branch -- both among those who are symptomatic and asymptomatic, he added. The general health status of 88 percent of them having been checked. Of them, 3,381, or 1.9 percent, had symptoms and the rest did not.
Daegu, the center of the country’s COVID-19 spread, has accumulated 2,236 confirmed cases, accounting for 70 percent of the total cases in the country.
The city’s hospitals are facing an overcrowding crisis. Some 1,300 patients are in quarantine at their homes waiting to be admitted to hospitals, according to the municipality.
Fueling concerns that a lack of hospital beds could lead to more deaths, two people are thought to have died from the coronavirus in the country while under quarantine at their homes waiting to be hospitalized.
“The number of hospital beds we can secure falls far short of the speed of the increase in the number of patients and we severely lack medical staff members at the scene,” Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said at a briefing, adding the city already reached its limit in capacity.
Daegu secured 1,329 additional beds, with 488 patients to be admitted to hospitals over the weekend, according to the municipality.
All 900 kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools and special educational institutes in Daegu have postponed the start of a new spring semester by two more weeks to March 23.
Kwon Joon-wook, the director of the National Institute of Health, reiterated the need for “social distancing,” asking Koreans to refrain from going outside, attending mass gatherings and religious services.
This weekend and the coming days until early March are a critical juncture for the country’s efforts to rein in the spread of the virus, he said.
As of Saturday afternoon, 17 people have died in Korea from the coronavirus, with most of them in their 60s and 70s. All of them had preexisting medical conditions including cancer, heart and liver diseases, according to the KCDC.
Based on the analysis of Korean patients, the KCDC said 80 percent only had mild symptoms and did not require medical treatment. Some 20 percent needed medical treatment, 5 percent of which have preexisting conditions and require extra care.
The country has tested a total of 90,905 suspected cases as of Saturday morning, with 55,723 having tested negative. Some 35,182 people are still awaiting results.
Some 16 patients remained in critical condition, the KCDC said.
The government said it would prioritize limiting the number of deaths by concentrating resources on those with severe symptoms. As part of such efforts, it is working to create a system under which patients are classified in four categories based on the severity of their symptoms so that those urgently in need of medical treatment can be admitted first.
Amid coronavirus fears, over 70 countries imposed entry bans, travel restrictions or advisories, or tightened quarantine measures on Korean nationals as of Saturday morning, according to the Foreign Ministry, with Malaysia and Lebanon being the latest to do so.
An Asiana Airlines flight that took off from Incheon Airport turned back while en route to Hanoi, Vietnam, Saturday after the Vietnamese authorities prevented it from landing in the country’s capital.
More than 84,000 cases have been reported, affecting every continent except Antarctica, pushing the world closer to a pandemic. Italy and Iran have emerged as major clusters outside of China, with more than 820 and 380 cases confirmed, respectively.
The World Health Organization said the outbreak increased the global risk from the outbreak from high to very high, with the director-general warning it could go in “any direction.”
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)