South Korea Reports Sudden Jump in Virus Cases, 90 More Show Symptoms

Most new cases attended church with potential 'super-spreader'
By Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
February 20, 2020Updated: February 20, 2020

The number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in South Korea linked to a church in the central city of Daegu has surged, with one patient believed to have infected dozens of people, officials said on Feb. 20.

South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said in a statement Thursday that it had confirmed a total of 31 new cases of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, bringing the total number of known cases in the country to 82.

Of the new cases, the agency said that 23 cases were traced to church services that a 61-year-old woman, who had earlier this week been confirmed as ‘Patient 31’ in the country, had attended in Daegu, 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of Seoul. At least five of the cases have an “epidemiological link“ to that same patient, the KCDC said.

The patient, the country’s first potential “super spreader,” attended the same service—the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, formerly known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus—as the patients testing positive for the virus on Thursday.

“We believe that there were many contacts at the church and we are planning to conduct kit tests for the entire church,” said KCDC chief Jung Eun-kyeong in a briefing, according to The Korea Times.

The 61-year-old woman had no recent record of overseas travel but had attended church services and sought care at a Daegu hospital from Feb. 7-17 before testing positive for the virus, the agency said.

Some 1,000 people are thought to have attended the same church service as the infected woman, a pastor told local media. Of these, around 90 are currently showing symptoms, reported AFP.

Daegu mayor Kwon Young-jin told AFP that those who have symptoms “will be tested as soon as possible.”

One other person who came into contact with ‘Patient 31’ at hospital has also tested positive for the virus.

The church on Tuesday urged its members to stay home, and encouraged those who attended services on Feb. 9 and 16 to be tested and self-quarantined. The KCDC confirmed on Thursday that all 166 people that patient came into contact with are now quarantined.

“We have closed down our Daegu church as of the 18th morning and are continuing to investigate, disinfect, and take preventive measures,” the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony said in a statement. “We have also ordered our 12 regional branch churches and its assembly premises to block entrances, and to replace services and meetings to online or family services instead.”

“We are deeply sorry that because of one of our members, who thought of her condition as a cold because she had not travelled abroad, led to many in our church being infected and thereby caused concern to the local community,” it said.

Of the new cases, 30 are in Daegu and one was confirmed in Seoul.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in warned on Tuesday that the country’s economy was in an emergency situation as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, adding that the impacts could be far greater than the 2015 MERS epidemic that killed 38 in the country.