Korea has confirmed 169 new cases of the new coronavirus raising the total number of infections to 602, as of 5 p.m. Sunday. The nation also saw its fifth and sixth fatalities from the COVID-19 over the weekend.
Amid growing concerns both here and abroad, health authorities raised the virus alert level to “red,” the highest in its four-tier system, for the first time in more than a decade.
"The COVID-19 incident has reached a watershed point," President Moon Jae-in said while chairing an emergency meeting. "Starting from today the next few days will be crucial in containing the novel coronavirus.” To beef up containment efforts, the government will install a new disaster countermeasures headquarters, headed by Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun.
The government also put off the opening of the spring semester at elementary, middle and high schools by a week to March 9. The Education Ministry said it would make up for the loss of school days by cutting short summer and winter vacations. In the same vein, it also called for private educational institutions, or hagwon, to postpone their opening voluntarily.
Four of the six deaths were related to Daenam Hospital in the southeastern city of Cheongdo. The hospital has become a hotbed of the virus with 110 people, including nine medical workers, testing positive for the virus. The two additional victims were a 41-year-old man who died in his Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, on Friday, and a 56-year-old woman who died while being treated at Kyungpook National University Hospital.
“Of the 169 new cases, 95 are related to worship services of the Shincheonji Church in Daegu,” the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said. “The infected cases that can be traced back to the church services have now increased above 300 as of Sunday morning, accounting for more than half of the total cases in Korea.”
The agency has placed more than 9,000 Shincheonji members in self-quarantine, it added.
As the numbers of COVID 19 patients are exploding, medical professionals in Daegu and surrounding North Gyeongsang Province, where the virus has struck the hardest, are known to be suffering from a lack of workforce and diagnostic agents to test the disease.
Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo visited Daegu, some 300 km southeast of Seoul, and met with doctors in the nation’s fourth-largest city and its neighboring province. At the meeting, local medical workers explained their difficulties, including the lack of workforce, and asked the central government to provide active support and cooperation in combating the disease.
Despite the government’s efforts to contain the disease, some experts have also started to criticize the government for having failed to improve its response much since the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2015.
“The cause of the MERS outbreak was due to the poor public health infrastructure and a lack of social investment in healthcare at the time,” the Korean Society of Epidemiology President Kim Dong-hyun said, during a symposium addressing the problems of the COVID-19 on Saturday. “However, it seems as though we were going toward the same conclusion for COVID-19.”
Unfortunately, if there is another new infectious disease outbreak in Korea five years later, the result will be much the same, Kim noted, adding that he does not understand why the government does not heed the cries of the medical community to strengthen public healthcare.
“The government is constantly investing in the military to prepare for a war that has not seen action for nearly 70 years ago,” Kim said. “However, they do not make any investments in preventing war with epidemics that occur almost every five years.”
In this regard, a professional organization is needed to comprehensively deal with a public health crisis and local health and public health care, Kim added.
As the new cases surged here, foreign countries are taking additional measures against Korea.
On Saturday, the U.S. raised its travel advisory for South Korea from Level 1 (normal precautions) to Level 2 (increased caution). The United States urged travelers to exercise increased caution amid the spread of the new coronavirus in the country.
Israel also denied entry to 130 Koreans that arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on Saturday. The country has also suspended all flights that travel between Israel and Korea.
The decision comes after some of the Korean travelers who participated in the pilgrimage to Israel tested positive for the COVID-19 recently. According to local reports, 18 of the 77 pilgrimages to Israel were confirmed to have the COVID-19. Korea’s Foreign Ministry lodged a strong protest against the Israeli move.
Besides, major airlines in Vietnam and Thailand announced they would cancel a majority of the flights to Korea.
As of 5 p.m. Sunday, the number of people checked for the virus and under quarantine reached 8,057. The nation has screened 26,179 people for COVID-19 since Jan. 3, with 17,520 testing negative and 18 discharged from hospital fully recovered. Aside from the four dead patients, 578 are receiving treatments in isolation.
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