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South Korea coronavirus cases top 2,300 as authorities ramp up testing

South Korea's confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose to 2,377 on Friday as the country takes measures to contain the outbreak with economic stimulus and increased testing. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
South Korea's confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose to 2,377 on Friday as the country takes measures to contain the outbreak with economic stimulus and increased testing. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- South Korea's coronavirus toll climbed again on Friday, reaching 2,337 confirmed cases, as health authorities continue widespread testing to try to rein in the outbreak. The number of patients has doubled in two days and has soared from just a few dozen cases early last week.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced 571 new cases on Friday, with the number of new patients expected to rise in the coming days as authorities test the members of a secretive religious sect whose church in Daegu has been at the center of the outbreak.

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Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said Friday that testing on around 1,300 followers of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus who have shown symptoms of COVID-19 has been completed and that the results, which are being tallied over the weekend, are expected to be significant.

"As we are accumulating the statistical data for the Shincheonji followers, we see that the ratio of confirmed cases has been fairly high," Kim said at a daily press briefing.

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Over 41 percent of South Korea's total cases are connected to the Shincheonji church in Daegu, while around 6 percent are tied to a hospital in neighboring Cheongdo county, the KCDC said Friday.

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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.

Health authorities have begun tests on the church's more than 210,000 members nationwide.

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Kim said that the government also ordered another 1,638 Shincheonji followers to self-isolate as they have shown symptoms, and he urged South Koreans to avoid large gatherings.

"We ask the citizens to stay at home if possible and to prevent contact with others," he said. "We also want to ask you to refrain from going to any religious congregations."

South Korea is beefing up measures to contain the economic fallout of the virus, as the government unveiled an additional package of emergency funds totaling $13 billion to support people and businesses affected by the outbreak of COVID-19.

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Some landlords have reduced rents in recent weeks to assist small businesses, and the government is stepping in with tax breaks for the property owners who join this initiative.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with the leaders of the county's major political parties on Friday and stressed the need for cooperation to counter the effects of the coronavirus.

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"The impact on our economy is very large," Moon said at the meeting. "The concerns are magnified the longer the situation goes on."

In addition to the emergency funds being released, Moon added that the government needs a "breakthrough" plan to help spur domestic consumption, which has been hard hit.

The Bank of Korea slashed GDP growth estimates this year to 2.1 percent on Thursday, down 0.2 percent from an earlier forecast.

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

Moon has seen his approval rating fall since the coronavirus outbreak. A survey released Friday by pollster Realmeter found Moon's popularity rating down to 44.7 percent, its lowest level since November. Moon's approval was hovering around 50 percent before South Korea had its first confirmed coronavirus case on Jan. 20.

South Korea is stepping up efforts to make screening for the coronavirus faster and more widely available, with cities including Goyang, Incheon and Sejong offering drive-through testing. Health authorities say the process, which only takes 10 minutes, will be rolled out to more locations around the country.

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The outbreak remains centered around Daegu, a southeastern city of 2.5 million people, and its neighboring North Gyeongsang Province. However, cases continue to be reported in most cities and provinces around the country, with the number of patients in Seoul rising to 62 on Friday. In Busan, the country's second-largest city, cases climbed to 68, of which 32 are linked to the Oncheon Christian church.

The number of foreign countries enforcing restrictions on travelers from South Korea rose again on Friday, as 52 countries are now either barring entry or requiring additional screening and quarantine measures.

Several countries are also advising their citizens to avoid traveling to South Korea. On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department raised its travel advisory for South Korea and is advising citizens to reconsider travel to the country amid the outbreak of COVID-19.

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