SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - South Korea on Saturday reported an eight-fold jump in viral infections in four days to 433, most of them linked to a church and a hospital in and around the country's fourth-largest city, where health workers scrambled to screen more than 9,000 worshipers.
There's concern that the death toll, currently at two, could grow. Virus patients with signs of pneumonia or other serious conditions at the Cheongdo hospital were transferred to other facilities, 17 of them in critical condition, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters.
He said 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 Tuesday.
Latest front: Daegu
Of the 229 new cases in South Korea, 200 are from Daegu and nearby regions, which have emerged as the latest front in the widening global fight against the virus.
By Saturday morning, the city of 2.5 million and nearby areas counted 352 cases, including the two fatalities in the 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 230 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 more than 110 people have been infected so far, mostly patients at a mental illness ward.
Health officials were screening some 9,300 church followers, and said that 1,261 of them have exhibited cough and other symptoms.
Among them, four had traveled abroad in recent months including one to China, although that trip came in early January and was away from Hubei.
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 about 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.
Anxiety is also palpable in other parts of the country. In the capital, Seoul, the fear of the virus led many to avoid shops and restaurants and instead eat at home and order necessities online. Buses and subways were full of mask-clad commuters.
Seoul City banned rallies downtown but hundreds went ahead with an anti-government protest at Gwanghwamun boulevard Saturday.
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.
Among a dozen new cases in Japan was a middle school teacher in her 60s, 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 because of 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.
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.
The United Arab Emirates on Saturday said two more people, a Filipino and a Bangladeshi, were infected, bringing the country's toll to 11 cases.
Saudi Arabia barred travel to Iran and said anyone coming from there can enter only after a 14-day quarantine. The decision directly impacts thousands of Iranians who travel to Mecca and Medina for Islamic pilgrimages, effectively barring them from the kingdom.
Iran has reported four deaths for a total of 18 cases.
China new cases slow
In some positive news, China said Saturday the daily count of new virus cases there fell significantly to 397, though another 109 people died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus. Most of the new cases and all but three of the deaths were in Hubei province, where the outbreak started.
The new figures, along with an upward revision of Hubei's earlier count, brought the total number of cases in mainland China to 76,288 with 2,345 deaths. China has severely restricted travel and imposed strict quarantine measures to stop the virus from spreading.