South Korea virus alert level rises and focuses on a church

South Korea says that more than half the new cases are linked to a church in the city of Daegu. All branches of the church were temporarily closed. 

Yonhap/Rueters
South Koreancitizens wait in a line to buy masks at a market in Daegu, South Korea, February 24, 2020. On Sunday, South Korea raised its infectious disease alert to it's highest level.

South Korea raised its infectious disease alert to its highest level on Sunday as the coronavirus death toll rose to six.

In response, Korean Air Lines and Asiana Airlines said on Monday that they are suspending flights to Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city and the one with the largest number of coronavirus cases, for the time being.

South Korean authorities reported a total of 763 coronavirus cases, as of Monday morning. More than half the new cases are linked to a church in the southeastern city of Daegu.

The Shincheonji church is seen by many mainstream Christian churches as belonging to a religious sect. Around 9,300 Shincheonji members in Daegu have either been quarantined or have been asked to stay at home, said Jung Eun-kyeong, director of Korea's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

The KCDC said the number of infections had jumped by 169. Of the total confirmed cases, more than 300 were linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus congregation in Daegu.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday that the government had raised the country's disease alert by one notch to the fourth and highest level in a bid to contain a surge in new cases.

The escalation in the alert level allows the government to send extra resources to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, which were designated "special care zones" on Friday.

The alert level also enables the government to forcibly prevent public activities and order the temporary closure of schools, the health ministry said.

The ministry also said Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun will take charge of policy decisions related to the virus outbreak, which is the first time the country's prime minister has intervened to take over from another minister in this way.

"We believe a week to 10 days will be crucial to determine the spread of the coronavirus," Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said in a news conference.

Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said that kindergartens, elementary, and secondary schools will start the new semester one week later on March 9, instead of March 2.

Earlier on Sunday, the ruling Democratic Party asked the government for an additional budget and also to free up emergency funds from the existing budget worth 3.4 trillion won ($2.82 billion) to tackle the outbreak. The South Korean parliament plans to hold a plenary session on Monday to discuss further measures, according to Yonhap.

South Korea's earlier cases were linked to China but the new infections center on Daegu, a city of about 2.5 million, and a hospital in Cheongdo, a county with about 43,000 people.

Kim Simon, a spokesman from the Shincheonji Church, said on Youtube on Sunday that the church would make an all-out effort to curb the virus' spread and closely cooperate with health authorities. The Shincheonji church said it shut all its local branches since a church member tested positive for the virus on February 18th.

The U.S. State Department on Saturday raised its travel advisory level for South Korea from 1 to 2, the second of four ratings, which asks travelers to avoid contact with sick people.

Seventeen South Korean Catholics from North Gyeongsang Province and their tour guide in Seoul, who had gone on a pilgrimage to Israel earlier this month, were confirmed to have been infected with the virus, the KCDC said.

Israeli and Palestinian authorities sought to allay fears of a potential local outbreak after learning that South Korean pilgrims who had toured some of the holy land's most popular sites were later found to be diagnosed with the virus.

South Koreans on board a Korean Air flight were refused entry at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International airport on Saturday evening due to concerns over the virus, South Korea's foreign ministry said on Sunday.

"As the measure was taken without notice in advance by Israel, we have lodged a complaint for causing inconveniences to our travelers and asked to prevent a recurrence," the ministry said, adding Israeli counterparts had promised to cooperate with South Korea.

Meanwhile, 41 Catholic churches in the cities of Daegu, Gwangju and elsewhere have suspended mass and other gatherings.

This story was reported by Reuters. 

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