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500 new coronavirus cases in South Korea as total nears 1,800

500 new coronavirus cases in South Korea as total nears 1,800
South Korea saw its number of confirmed COVID-19 cases soar  again on Thursday as it struggles to contain the outbreak. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Cases of the infectious COVID-19 disease in South Korea rose to 1,766 confirmed patients on Thursday as U.S. and Korean combined forces announced that they would indefinitely postpone their planned annual joint military drills.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced 505 new cases on Thursday, another single-day high in an outbreak that has continued to spread rapidly since last week.

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The country's death toll increased to 13, the latest victim a 75-year-old man who was connected with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect whose church in Daegu has been at the center of the outbreak.

A 61-year-old woman, considered a "super-spreader" of the virus, attended services at the church on Feb. 9 and 16 before and after exhibiting symptoms. She was confirmed as South Korea's 31st COVID-19 patient Feb. 18.

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Around 46 percent of the total cases are connected to the Shincheonji church in Daegu, while another 7 percent are tied to a hospital in neighboring Cheongdo county, the KCDC said on Thursday.

Health authorities have begun tests on the church's more than 210,000 members nationwide. Tests on about 1,300 followers who have shown symptoms have been completed, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said in a press briefing on Thursday. He said that authorities would complete the checks on the rest of the 9,000 Shincheonji members in Daegu over the next few days.

The outbreak remains centered around Daegu, a southeastern city of 2.5 million people, and its neighboring North Gyeongsang Province, with 1,132 and 345 infections, respectively.

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However, the number of cases has also been growing in Busan, the country's second-largest city with a population of 3.5 million, which now has 61 confirmed patients. Seoul, the capital of 9.8 million people, saw its total grow to 56 cases, the KCDC reported on Thursday.

The economic impact of COVID-19 is starting to be felt as the Bank of Korea slashed GDP growth estimates this year to 2.1 percent on Thursday, down 0.2 percent from an earlier forecast.

However, the BOK's Gov. Lee Ju-yeol announced that the central bank would keep interest rates unchanged at 1.25 percent in a press conference held Thursday via YouTube due to coronavirus precautions. Some analysts had been anticipating a rate cut in order to help stimulate the economy.

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President Moon Jae-in called on government ministries to help rein in the economic fallout from COVID-19 on Thursday.

"COVID-19 is already hurting our economy," Moon said at a briefing with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, urging them to support industries being impacted such as aviation and shipping.

Moon also appealed to the National Assembly, South Korea's parliament, to stabilize the real estate market with measures meant to curb speculation.

Many pharmacies and shops around the country have been running out of face masks and hand sanitizer, with prices spiking on remaining supplies. The government has stepped in to limit mask exports and require manufacturers to supply at least half of their production to state-run or public retailers.

The Moon administration has been facing criticism over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, particularly as it has not banned all visitors from mainland China. South Korea has restricted entry to those from China's Hubei province, where the spread of the infectious disease began.

A petition calling for Moon's impeachment on the presidential Blue House website had received over 1.1 million signatures as of Thursday evening.

More foreign countries have begun enforcing restrictions on travelers from South Korea. By Thursday, the list had grown to 42 countries either barring entry or requiring additional screening and quarantine measures.

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Several countries are also advising their citizens to avoid traveling to South Korea. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its highest travel warning on Monday, recommending that citizens avoid non-essential travel to South Korea.

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department raised its travel advisory to South Korea and is advising citizens to reconsider travel to the country amid the outbreak of COVID-19.

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