SEOUL: South Korea on Tuesday afternoon (Feb 25) reported its 10th death from the novel coronavirus and 144 more cases.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) confirmed 144 new infections, taking the tally to 977, the largest national total anywhere outside China, where the virus first emerged.
More than 80 per cent of the infections have been in South Korea's fourth-largest city Daegu and neighbouring North Gyeongsang province.
"The situation is very grave," President Moon Jae-in said on a visit to Daegu, wearing the uniform of a government emergency official and vowing full government support.
"We will achieve a victory in the fight against this virus," he added.
The streets of Daegu - which has a population of 2.5 million - have been largely deserted for days, apart from long queues at the few shops with masks for sale.
Authorities urged the public to exercise extra caution, advising citizens to stay home if they have a fever or respiratory symptoms.
South Korea's parliament cancelled sessions Tuesday as it closed for cleaning after confirmation a person with the coronavirus had attended a meeting last week.
The leader of the main opposition United Future party Hwang Kyo-ahn had to be tested along with other senior party officials as they had come into contact with the patient, but all tested negative.
Scores of events have been cancelled or postponed as the outbreak has spread in the world's 12th-largest economy, from K-pop concerts to the start of the K-league football season, with casualties on Tuesday including parliamentary sessions and the World Team Table Tennis championships.
Explore our interactive: All the COVID-19 cases in Singapore and the clusters and links between them
South Korea has an advanced medical system, a free press and a strong culture of public accountability, and observers say that its health statistics can be treated with confidence.
Most of the country's infections are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an entity often accused of being a cult.
A 61-year-old female member developed a fever on Feb 10, but attended at least four church services in Daegu before being diagnosed.
KCDC director Jung Eun-kyeong advised Shincheonji followers to refrain from going outside "as much as possible".
With public criticism growing, Shincheonji's founder Lee Man-hee said the group would provide the government a list of all its members to have them tested for the virus.
CHURCH MEMBERS TO BE TESTED
South Korean health authorities have also said that they plan to test potentially more than 200,000 members of the church.
On Tuesday, the church leader said it had agreed to provide authorities with the names of all its members in South Korea, estimated by media at about 215,000 people.
The government plans to conduct coronavirus tests on all of the members "as soon as possible" once it has the information, the prime minister's office said in a statement.
"We have constantly requested the list based on our assessment that it is essential to test all of the church members in order to contain the spread of the virus and relieve public anxiety," the statement said.
The church, which has faced public criticism of its handling of the outbreak, asked the government to ensure the personal details in the lists do not become public.
"We have been actively cooperating with the government to prevent the spread of the virus and overcome the outbreak," church founder and self-proclaimed messiah Lee Man-hee said in a letter posted online.
Besides its members, the church would also check the people in training programmes to become full members, he added.
"All of these will be implemented on the premise that the government takes steps to protect their personal information," Lee said.
With the surge in infection numbers, the United States hinted at scaling back joint military exercises.
US and South Korea militaries were "looking at scaling back the command post training due to concerns about the coronavirus", US Defence Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in Washington.
His South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo added that 13 South Korean servicemen had been infected and all leave for the military cancelled to limit soldiers' movements.
"The situation is quite serious," Jeong said.
ALERT LEVEL RAISED TO HIGHEST
President Moon Jae-in on Sunday said that the government "will raise the alert level to the highest level of 'grave' according to experts' recommendations and drastically strengthen our response system".
He also urged officials not to hesitate from taking "unprecedented powerful measures" to contain the outbreak.
The escalation in the alert level allows the government to send extra resources to Daegu and nearby Cheongdo – a county that also saw surges in confirmed cases in recent weeks.
The alert level also enables the government to forcibly prevent public activities and order the temporary closure of schools, the health ministry said, though it gave few details of immediate measures.
The outbreak has forced South Korean tech giant Samsung Electronics to suspend operations at its smartphone plant in Gumi, 200km southeast of Seoul, after one of its employees was infected at the weekend.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised travellers to "avoid all nonessential travel" to South Korea.