South Korea declared "war" on the coronavirus on Tuesday, as total cases in the country soared to over 4,800. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
SEOUL, March 3 (UPI) -- South Korea's confirmed cases of COVID-19 soared to 5,186 on Tuesday as President Moon Jae-in declared "war" on the disease, which has spread rapidly over the past two weeks and is straining the country's medical infrastructure and economy.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a total of 974 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday while the death toll rose to 29.
The overwhelming majority of cases remain concentrated around the southeastern city of Daegu and its surrounding areas, with the outbreak tied to a secretive religious sect. Almost 90 percent of patients are concentrated in Daegu, a city of 2.5 million, and its neighboring North Gyeongsang province.
Over 56 percent of the cases are connected to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a controversial new religious movement in South Korea that many consider a cult.
The number of reported cases began skyrocketing after a 61-year-old woman who is a member of the Shincheonji church in Daegu was confirmed as the country's 31st COVID-19 patient two weeks ago. She had attended services at the church both before and after exhibiting symptoms, health authorities said.
Officials are testing the more than 210,000 members of the church nationwide.
Moon addressed the outbreak at a meeting with cabinet members and health officials on Tuesday, ordering government agencies to go on full alert with a "24-hour emergency room system" to address the crisis.
"The crisis in Daegu-North Gyeongsang has reached its peak, and the whole country is at war against the infectious disease," he said. "We believe that inspecting large numbers of people at the fastest speed in the world and making the results transparent and quick is the best thing we can do at this stage to prevent the spread of local infections."
South Korea has tested more than 121,000 people so far, the KCDC said on Tuesday, far more than most countries.
Moon also addressed the economic fallout from the coronavirus at Tuesday's meeting, calling it "severe."
"Economic sentiment is frozen and investment, consumption and industrial activity are shrinking significantly," he said.
Moon announced plans to spend $25 billion to deal with the crisis, including a supplemental budget that he said will be submitted to the country's National Assembly on Wednesday. The budget will be used to support small businesses and stimulate domestic consumption as well as to expand medical facilities and equipment.
The hardest-hit area of Daegu has seen a shortfall of hospital beds, while masks used to help prevent the spread of the disease have been out of stock in many pharmacies around the country despite the government's efforts to stabilize the supply.
Moon apologized on Tuesday for the mask shortage and called for increased production and better distribution from suppliers.
In Daegu, some 1,800 patients are quarantined at home awaiting available hospital beds, Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said at a daily press briefing on Tuesday. He said that the government will have an additional 2,000 sickbeds in isolation facilities to treat and monitor patients with milder symptoms ready by early next week.
Authorities have completed testing on roughly 6,000 members of the Shincheonji church in Daegu, Kim said, adding that the results have not yet been fully tallied but the ratio of those testing positive for COVID-19 remains very high.
Kim said that the disease has been spreading through the community outside of the church as well, and officials are extending their focus toward testing ordinary residents.
"We are seeing transmission of virus through the community," Kim said. "In order to mitigate the harm we need to expand the tests to the rest of the citizens of Daegu."
COVID-19 cases also continue to be reported in most cities and provinces around the country, with the number of patients in Seoul rising to 98 by Tuesday morning, while in Busan, the country's second-largest city, the total climbed to 90.
The number of foreign countries enforcing restrictions on travelers from South Korea continues to grow. As of Tuesday, 36 countries and regions are barring entry by travelers who have visited South Korea in the past two weeks and 51 countries and regions are implementing quarantine measures, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The United States has not yet imposed entry restrictions, but passengers boarding direct flights from South Korea will be subject to "100 percent screening" for health issues, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Monday.
The U.S. State Department has issued a Level 3 travel advisory for South Korea, advising citizens to "reconsider travel" to the country. It has placed a "Level 4: Do Not Travel" warning, its highest, on Daegu.