SEOUL, South Korea —
South Korea on Saturday reported a six-fold jump in viral infections in four days to 346, most of them linked to a church and a hospital in and around the fourth-largest city where schools were closed and worshipers and others told to avoid mass gatherings.
Initial infections were linked to China, but new cases in South Korea and Iran — where there have been four deaths — don’t show a clear connection to travel there. In an emerging cluster of illnesses in northern Italy, the first to fall ill met with someone who had returned from China on Jan. 21 without experiencing any symptoms of the new virus, health authorities said.
China said Saturday the daily count of new virus cases there fell significantly to 397, with another 109 people dying of the disease, most in the epicenter of Hubei province.
The new figures bring the total number of cases in mainland China to 76,288 with 2,345 deaths, as strict quarantine measures and travel bans continue to contain the disease that emerged in China in December and has since spread worldwide. The daily figure is down from 889 on Friday.
Of the 142 new cases in South Korea, 131 are from Daegu and nearby regions, which have emerged as the latest front in the widening global fight against COVID-19.
South Korea’s Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said Saturday that the outbreak had entered a serious new phase, but still expressed cautious optimism that it can be contained to the region surrounding Daegu, where the first case was reported on Tuesday.
By Saturday morning, the city of 2.5 million and nearby areas counted 283 cases, including South Korea’s first two fatalities in Cheongdo hospital.
The central government has declared the area as a “special management zone” and is channeling support to ease a shortage in hospital beds, medical personnel and equipment.
“Although we are beginning to see some more cases nationwide, infections are still sporadic outside of the special management zone of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province,” Kim said during a briefing. He called for maintaining strong border controls to prevent infections from China and elsewhere from entering South Korea.
Nationwide, the numbers told of a ballooning problem. There were 20 new cases reported Wednesday, 53 on Thursday and 100 on Friday.
Around 170 of those have been directly linked to a single house of worship, a Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where a woman in her 60s attended two services before testing positive for the virus.
Officials are also investigating a possible link between churchgoers and the spike in infections at the Cheongdo hospital, where 111 people have so far been infected, mostly patients at a mental illness ward.
Kim said health officials were screening some 9,300 of the church followers who were in self-quarantine at their homes, and that about 540 have exhibited cough and other symptoms. The virus patients at the Cheongdo hospital were transferred to other facilities, but 17 of them were in critical condition, Kim said without elaborating.
All 74 sites operated by the Shincheonji Church have been closed and worshipers have been told to instead watch services online for a sect whose leader claims to be an angel of Christ, but who is dismissed by many outsiders as a cult leader. Its teachings revolve largely around the Book of Revelation, a chapter of the New Testament known mostly for its apocalyptic foreshadowing.
Health and city officials say the woman who first tested positive had contact with some 1,160 people, both at the church, a restaurant and a hospital where she was treated for injuries from a car accident.
But officials say it’s unlikely that the woman set off the chain of infections, and that she was probably just the first person to be detected in an area where the virus was circulating in the population.
“I hope South Korea will do everything to contain this outbreak at this early stage,” Tedros said.
Usually bustling downtown streets of Daegu were nearly deserted as people wearing face masks lined up at clinics seeking testing. Crowds formed in supermarkets where shelves of ramen and curry were nearly bare. Eight hundred area schools, due to start a new academic year on March 2, delayed their openings by a week.
“Panic is taking hold,” said Daegu resident Huh Mi-yeon. “People are scared of any situation where they would run into another person.”
The first three cases in the country’s 600,000-member military also sprung up on separate bases Friday, bringing added concern. A sailor on Jeju Island and an army officer in North Chungcheong province both tested positive. Both had made recent visits to Daegu, officials said. A third infection was reported in an air force officer who is based in Daegu but who had recently traveled to military headquarters in central South Korea, the defense ministry said, prompting the quarantine of 80 soldiers there.
A U.S. Army garrison in Daegu restricted access and imposed self-quarantine for American troops.
In Japan, a middle school teacher in her 60s tested positive for the virus, prompting concern for the health of other teachers and students in Makuhari in Chiba prefecture southeast of Tokyo.
Chiba Mayor Toshihito Kumagai said the school was closed and all teachers will be tested and students monitored.
Globally, more than 77,000 people have been infected in 29 countries, and more than 2,300 have died. Italian authorities say a 78-year-old man died of the disease and the number of people infected has more than quadrupled due to an emerging cluster of cases in the country’s north. Many of the new cases represented the first infections in Italy acquired through secondary contagion and brought the country’s total to 19 on Friday.
In the United States, 35 people have tested positive for the virus, including 18 who returned home from a quarantined cruise ship in Japan and one new case reported Friday in California.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.