SEOUL: South Korea reported 52 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus on Friday (Feb 21), taking the national total to 156, with the majority in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city.
Altogether 39 of the new cases were linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southern city of Daegu, the Korean Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said.
More than 80 members of Shincheonji have now been infected, starting with a 61-year-old woman who developed a fever on Feb 10 but attended at least four church services before being diagnosed.
Of the national tally, 111 patients are from Daegu or nearby.
The mayor of Daegu - which has a population of over 2.5 million - has advised residents to stay indoors, and commanders at a major US base in the area restricted access.
Residents wore masks to go about their daily activities on Friday.
As of Friday more than 400 members of the church are showing symptoms of the disease, though tests were still ongoing, Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said at a briefing.
Shincheonji is often accused of being a cult and claims 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 judgement.
The KCDC said one more case had been confirmed at a hospital in Cheongdo county near Daegu where a total of 16 infections have now been identified, including a long-stay patient who died Wednesday after showing symptoms of pneumonia.
"SPECIAL CARE ZONES"
The government will designate Daegu and neighbouring Cheongdo County as "special care zones", Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said at a meeting of senior government officials in Seoul on Friday.
"It is urgent to find those who were in contact with the infected and treat the diagnosed people as soon as possible," Chung said. "We will proactively provide necessary assistance including sickbeds, personnel and equipment."
The government also plans to send military medical staff, and provide temporary isolation facilities, he said.
In the South Korean capital of Seoul, city officials said they would not allow any of the large protests and demonstrations that are often held on the weekends, Yonhap news agency reported.
After several military members tested positive for the virus on Thursday, Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo decided to ban all soldiers from taking leave, leaving their barracks, and receiving guests.
Some exceptions would be made for family emergencies or for soldiers at the end of their military service, the ministry said.
The country reported its first COVID-19 death on Thursday.