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SKorea: Need Powerful Steps for Virus  02/23 09:44

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea's president said Sunday that he was 
putting his country on its highest alert for infectious diseases and ordered 
officials to take "unprecedented, powerful" steps to fight a soaring viral 
outbreak that has infected more than 600 people in the country, mostly in the 
last few days. 

   China also reported hundreds of more infections for a total of about 77,000, 
and Iran raised its death toll from the virus to eight __ the highest toll 
outside of China. While the number of patients worldwide is increasing, some 
virus clusters have shown no link to China and experts are struggling to trace 
where those clusters started.

   The Iranian health ministry said there were now 43 confirmed cases in Iran, 
which did not report its first case of the virus until Wednesday.

   In Italy's northern Lombardy region, which includes the nation's financial 
capital, Milan, the governor announced Sunday that the number of confirmed 
cases in the region stood at 89. Italy now has 132 cases, including two deaths.

   Venice, which is full of tourists for Carnival events, reported its first 
two cases, said Veneto Gov. Luca Zaia, whose region includes the lagoon city. 
It wasn't immediately known if the two infected had participated in Carnival 
festivities.

   Warning that China's virus epidemic is "still grim and complex," President 
Xi Jinping called for more efforts to stop the outbreak, revive industry and 
prevent the disease from disrupting spring planting of crops.

   Xi defended the ruling Communist Party's response as "timely and effective" 
in a video conference with officials in charge of anti-disease work, according 
to the official Xinhua News Agency. 

   "The current epidemic situation is still grim and complex," Xinhua cited Xi 
as saying. "Prevention and control are at the most critical stage."

   South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his government had decided to 
increase its anti-virus alert level by one notch to "Red," the highest level. 
The step was last taken in 2009 to guard against a novel influenza outbreak 
that killed more than 260 people in South Korea. Under the highest alert level, 
authorities can order the temporary closure of schools and reduce the operation 
of public transportation and flights to and from South Korea. 

   Moon's education minister, Yoo Eun-hae, said later Sunday that the new 
school year for kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools in South 
Korea has been put off by one week and will start on March 9. 

   Moon said that the outbreak "has reached a crucial watershed," and that the 
next few days will be "critical." "We shouldn't be bound by regulations and 
hesitate to take unprecedented, powerful measures," he said.

   South Korea announced 169 more cases of the new virus, bringing the 
country's total to 602. The country also reported three more fatalities, 
raising its death toll to six.

   Mainland China reported 648 new infections for a total of 76,936. The daily 
death toll fell slightly to 97. In all, 2,442 people have died in the country 
from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

   The number of new Chinese cases has seesawed daily but has remained under 
1,000 for the past four days. Several changes to how the infections are 
counted, however, have made it difficult to draw conclusions from the figures.

   The central Chinese city of Wuhan and other parts of Hubei province, where 
the outbreak first emerged in December, remain under lockdown. More than 80% of 
the country's cases are in Hubei, where the death toll has also been higher 
than in the rest of the nation.

   Most of the South Korean cases have been reported in the country's 
fourth-largest city, Daegu, and the surrounding area. According to the Korea 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 320 cases have also been 
confirmed to have links to a branch of the local Shincheonji church in Daegu, 
which has become the biggest cluster of viral infections in South Korea. 

   Shincheonji, which has been viewed as a cult movement by mainstream 
Christian organizations, tried to defend itself from growing public anger 
directed at the church. 

   In a video statement posted on its website, church spokesman Simon Kim said 
Shincheonji has shut down all its 1,100 local churches and other facilities 
since one of its church members tested positive for the virus on Feb. 18, the 
first patient in Daegu.

   Earlier Sunday, Daegu Mayor Kwon Yong-jin said there were concerns that the 
number of those infected in the city could see yet another massive increase 
because authorities were launching intensive examinations of church members 
with virus-related symptoms.

   China's Politburo, made up of senior officials of the ruling Communist 
Party, cautioned Friday that while the epidemic has been "preliminarily 
contained," the country has yet to see a turning point.

   Officials signaled that regular activities should gradually resume after the 
virus prompted an extension of last month's Lunar New Year holiday. Many 
workplaces have opted to have their employees work remotely, and schools are 
conducting online classes.

   In Beijing, most residential communities have implemented "closed 
management," limiting the number of people per household who can go in and out 
using exit-entry cards and requiring those just returning to the Chinese 
capital to isolate themselves at home for 14 days.

   A cluster of infections was reported out of Beijing's Fuxing Hospital. The 
facility, which has 34 confirmed cases, has been closed off to protect the 
surrounding community, said a statement from Xicheng district authorities.

   More than 500 cases also have been found in prisons across the country.

   A cruise ship passenger who had been hospitalized after testing positive for 
the new virus died on Sunday, the third fatality from the Diamond Princess, 
Japan's health ministry said.

   The ministry also announced 57 more cases of infections from the ship, 
including 55 crew members still on board and two passengers who had infected 
roommates and are in a prolonged quarantine at a government facility.

   With the new cases, 691 people have been infected on the ship, or nearly 
one-fifth of the ship's original population of 3,711. Japan has confirmed a 
total of 838 cases and four deaths from the virus, which first emerged in 
China, including those on the ship.

   Meanwhile, a diplomatic row erupted after Israel turned back a South Korean 
airliner, underscoring fear and tensions over the fast-spreading outbreak.

   A Korean Air flight with 188 passengers that landed at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion 
airport Saturday evening was taxied away from the allotted terminal while 
authorities allowed only 11 Israelis to enter the country. The plane returned 
to South Korea with the rest of the passengers on Sunday, according to airline 
officials.

   Seoul's Foreign Ministry said Sunday that it was closely monitoring the 
incident and providing active consular assistance to South Koreans staying in 
Israel. It said it will evacuate South Korean tourists from Israel if 
necessary. 

   Yonhap news agency cited South Korea's Foreign Ministry as registering a 
strong protest with the Israeli government. The ministry told Israel that no 
excessive, unreasonable measures should be taken against South Korean 
nationals, according to the report.

   South Korea earlier informed Israel that a group of tourists who traveled to 
Israel and the West Bank for a week this month tested positive for the virus 
upon returning home. Israeli and Palestinian health authorities asked people 
who were in close contact with the tourists to quarantine themselves. 

   South Korean health authorities said Sunday that 18 of the 39 South Koreans 
from the southeastern region who had made a group pilgrimage to sites in Israel 
later tested positive for the virus. She said the 21 others were being tested. 
Forty-one Catholic churches in their neighborhoods halted Sunday Masses and 
other gatherings.

   Israel's Foreign Ministry issued added travel warnings to South Korea and 
Japan due to the coronavirus, and the Health Ministry is ordering Israelis 
returning from those countries to remain in home quarantine, as previously 
ordered for those returning from Hong Kong, China, Macau, Thailand and 
Singapore.

   Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be adding more restrictions 
on entry to Israel from additional countries, including Australia and Italy.

   Jordan said it was denying entry of non-Jordanians coming from Iran and 
South Korea, on top of a previous ban on those coming from China. Nationals 
arriving from those countries will be quarantined.

   Downtown Daegu was mostly deserted Sunday, with shelves at some supermarkets 
and stores empty. Many restaurants, bars, real-estate offices and tour agencies 
shut down as traffic nosedived and people stayed home, ordering food and 
supplies online. 

   Kim Mi-yeon, who opened her cake shop in Daegu on Sunday despite worries 
about infection, said she received only one group of customers. 

   "I'm also worried about being infected, but I still opened my shop today to 
make a living," she said by phone. "On weekends, I used to hire five part-time 
employees, but I've recently told all of them not to come. How can I hire them 
at a time when I have fewer then 10 customers a day?"


(KR)

 
 
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