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South Korea leader calls for 'unprecedented, powerful' steps to stop virus

Associated Press • Feb 23, 2020 at 4:07 AM

SEOUL, South Korea  — South Korea’s president put his country on its highest alert for infectious diseases, saying Sunday that officials should take “unprecedented, powerful” steps to fight a viral outbreak.

President Moon Jae-in made the comments at the start of a government meeting Sunday after South Korean authorities 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.

Moon said his government had increased its anti-virus alert level by one notch to “Red,” the highest level. Under the alert level, authorities could order the temporary closure of schools and reduce the operation of public transportation and flights to and from South Korea.

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.

Iran raised its death toll from the virus to eight people, the highest toll outside China. The 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.

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.

Globally, more than 78,000 people have been infected in 29 countries.

CHINA UPDATE

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 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.

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.

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.

PLANE TURNED AWAY

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

The flight that landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport Saturday evening was taxied away from the allotted terminal while authorities evacuated and quarantined 12 Israelis and returned the rest of the passengers to Seoul, Israeli media reported.

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

The Foreign Ministry said Sunday that it was closely monitoring the reported incident and providing active consular assistance to South Koreans staying in Israel under close consultations with authorities there. It said it will evacuate South Korean tourists from Israel at an early date if necessary.

According to Yonhap, the plane was returning to South Korea on Sunday afternoon.

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.

Officials said Sunday that 18 of the 39 South Koreans from the southeastern region who had made a group pilgrimage to sites in Israel had contracted the virus. Twenty-one were being tested. Forty-one Catholic churches in their neighborhoods halted Sunday Masses and other gatherings.