SEOUL, South Korea —
South Korea’s number of newly confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus has doubled in just 24 hours, to a total of 204 cases. The majority are from the southeastern city of Daegu and are followers of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious sect.
Throughout the country, public fear is escalating and health officials have deemed the situation a “super-spreading event,” but government officials seem confident they can keep it under control. Even if infected, “patients could be cured completely within two to three weeks,” as long as the patient has no underlying disease, Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo said at a televised briefing on Friday. He expressed confidence in medical personnel’s ability to treat the infected.
Seventy percent of all confirmed cases in South Korea are followers of Shincheonji. Health officials are trying to track down roughly 1,000 of its members who attended church services in Daegu on Feb. 9 and Feb. 16. Also under scrutiny are those who attended a funeral in nearby Cheongdo, the birthplace of Shincheonji’s founder, Lee Man-hee. The funeral was for his brother.
The church has now closed all of its 74 sanctuaries around the nation, and President Moon Jae-in has ordered that all of the 1,000 Shincheonji members who reportedly had been in that area be tracked down.
Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo is under quarantine. Dozens of confirmed patients either work in or have visited the hospital.
Daegu is South Korea’s fourth largest city, with 2.5 million, and people are advised to stay home and wear masks even when they’re indoors. Streets, shops and restaurants were largely empty, and some companies have voluntarily shut their workplaces.
“Almost all public facilities where many people gather are shut down–libraries, learning centers, gyms, department stores, schools,” Lee Jiyun, a teacher at a Daegu public middle school, told ABC News. “The streets that used to overflow with traffic are now empty.”
In Seoul, South Korea’s capital of 9.73 million, major downtown rallies are now banned and public parks have shut down. Streets popular with tourists feel like ghost towns. Workers in protective gear are spraying disinfectant in subways, restaurants and shops that confirmed patients have visited. Some 3,500 senior welfare centers in the city are to be shut down as the virus puts elders and those with pre-existing conditions at greater risk.
All 600,000 enlisted troops in South Korea’s military are restricted from leaving for vacation or meeting outside visitors after a 31-year-old army officer and a 22-year-old navy sailor tested positive, both after visiting Daegu.
Nevertheless, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the “the number of cases are really manageable, and I hope South Korea will do everything to contain this outbreak at this early stage.” The new cases were mostly linked to known, existing clusters of infections, he said.
ABC News’ Hakyung Kate Lee and Heejin Kang contributed to this report.