South Korea moves to contain coronavirus outbreak amid spike in new cases

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean officials on Friday designated two cities as “special care zones” while its military confined troops to their bases in a desperate effort to contain the spread of coronavirus after a recent spike in cases.

South Korea reported 52 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, taking the national total to 156, the majority in Daegu, the country’s fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million.

Malls, restaurants and streets in city were largely empty as the mayor called the outbreak an “unprecedented crisis”.

Of the national tally, 111 patients are from Daegu or nearby. Most have been traced to an infected 61-year-old woman known as “Patient 31” who attended a church, a scenario that health authorities described as a “super-spreading event”.

As of Friday more than 400 members of the church are showing symptoms of the disease, though tests were still ongoing, Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said at a briefing.

He said the city would ban any kind of mass gathering and repeated a request for residents to stay at home.

The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are a still many important unknowns surrounding it. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.

Many of South Korea’s initial patients have recovered, though it reported the first death from the virus on Thursday.

The government will designate Daegu and neighboring Cheongdo County as “special care zones”, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said at a meeting of senior government officials in Seoul on Friday.

“It is urgent to find those who were in contact with the infected and treat the diagnosed people as soon as possible,” Chung said. “We will proactively provide necessary assistance including sickbeds, personnel and equipment.”

The government also plans to send military medical staff, and provide temporary isolation facilities, he said.

In the South Korean capital of Seoul, city officials said they would not allow any of the large protests and demonstrations that are often held on the weekends, Yonhap news agency reported.

After several military members tested positive for the virus on Thursday, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo decided to ban all soldiers from taking leave, leaving their barracks, and receiving guests.

Some exceptions would be made for family emergencies or for soldiers at the end of their military service, the ministry said.

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