SEOUL: A cluster of COVID-19 infections centred on a church in the South Korean city of Daegu leapt to 39 cases on Thursday (Feb 20), as the country's total spiked for the second successive day.
Almost half the country's patients are linked to a 61-year-old woman who is a member of the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an entity often accused of being a cult.
The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said in a statement that 31 new coronavirus cases had been confirmed nationwide, 23 of them in the church cluster, bringing the country's total to 82.
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The woman first developed a fever on Feb 10 but reportedly twice refused to be tested for the coronavirus on the grounds that she had not recently travelled abroad, and attended at least four services before being diagnosed.
So far 37 other members of the church have been confirmed as infected.
Shincheonji claims that its founder Lee Man-hee has donned the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the Day of Judgment.
The spike in new cases prompted authorities to warn of possible further cases and asked Daegu citizens to stay indoors.
Malls, restaurants and streets in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million, were largely empty in scenes that local social media users likened to a disaster movie.
"We are in an unprecedented crisis," Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said at a briefing in the city, about 240km southwest of the capital Seoul, as he warned of likely further cases.
Kwon cautioned that at least 90 more of the around 1,000 other people who attended services at the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony were also showing symptoms.
"We plan to test all believers of that church and have asked them to stay at home isolated from their families," Kwon said.
South Korea's vice-health minister Kim Kang-lip said at a separate briefing in the administrative city of Sejong that the situation was "very grave".
The cases previously reported in South Korea had mostly involved people who had travelled individually to China or come in contact with somebody who had.
Daegu authorities ordered the shutdown of all kindergartens, while schools considered postponing the beginning of the spring semester scheduled for early March.
The Defence Ministry banned troops stationed in Daegu from leaving their barracks and receiving guests. The US military imposed similar restrictions on its army base in the city, which houses thousands of troops, family members and civilian employees, curbing travel and closing schools and child care centres.
Local media footage showed the few people on Daegu's usually bustling downtown streets wore face masks and kept far apart.
Topics such as "Daegu lockdown" and "Daegu church" were among the top searches on major South Korean portal Naver as debate heated up online about whether the city should be sealed off from the rest of the country. A KCDC official told Reuters the government was not yet considering that measure.
The church at the centre of the outbreak is a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious movement founded in 1984 by South Korean Lee Man-hee who has about 500,000 followers.
Some commentators on social media blamed the custom of churchgoers sitting on the floor close to each other during services as potentially boosting the risk of spreading the virus.
Shincheonji said on Wednesday it had closed its Daegu church and instructed that services elsewhere be held online or individually at home.