SEOUL: South Korea raised its alert on COVID-19 to the highest level on Sunday (Feb 23) after reporting three more deaths and 169 new infections.
The country has seen a rapid surge in the number of coronavirus cases since a cluster of infections emerged from a religious group in the southern city of Daegu. The national toll of 602 cases is now the highest outside China, apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
The three deaths take the countrywide toll to six.
One of the victims was a patient being treated for mental health issues at a hospital in Cheongdo, a southern city linked to the religious sect where around 100 new cases were reported.
Following a government meeting on the virus, President Moon Jae-in said the government "will raise the alert level to the highest level of 'grave' according to experts' recommendations and drastically strengthen our response system."
Among the latest infections, 95 involved the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the nearby city of Daegu, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
More than 300 cases have been linked to the church, starting with a 61-year-old woman who developed a fever on February 10 and attended at least four services in Daegu before being diagnosed.
About 9,300 Shincheonji members in Daegu have either been quarantined or have been asked to stay at home, said KCDC director Jung Eun-kyeong, with more than 1,240 saying they had symptoms.
Daegu - South Korea's fourth-biggest city, with a population of 2.5 million - reported more than 90 new cases on Sunday, bringing the city's total to 247, mayor Kwon Young-jin said.
"The crisis level of Daegu and the North Gyeongsang province is grave," said Kwon, who advised locals to stay indoors.
The mayor asked all Shincheonji members with symptoms to come forward and be tested.
"Hiding is not the answer. If you hide, it could hurt your health, your family's health, and will not help in the early cessation of the situation," Kwon told a news conference.
Moon described the situation in Daegu and Cheongdo - the birthplace of Shincheonji's founder Lee Man-hee - as a "national crisis", adding the cities will receive "full support" for any lacking medical supplies and personnel. Kwon added that both areas were desginated as "special management zones" on Friday.
Explore our interactive: All the COVID-19 cases in Singapore and the clusters and links between them
The US State Department on Saturday raised its travel advisory to South Korea, joining a handful of countries bolstering their vigilance against the country's recent spike in the number of infections.
US citizens were asked to "exercise increased caution" when travelling to South Korea, where "sustained community spread" has been reported.
"Sustained community spread means that people in South Korea have been infected with the virus, but how or where they became infected is not known, and the spread is ongoing," the State Department said on its website.
Separately, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued an 'Alert Level 2' travel health notice, saying "older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing nonessential travel".
Britain has also advised its nationals "against all but essential travel to Daegu and Cheongdo", while Israel refused to allow non-Israelis to disembark from a plane that departed from South Korea on Saturday.
Singapore on Sunday also advised its nations to defer all non-essential travel to the two cities.