South Korea is raising awareness of the new corona virus, President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday when the country reported 123 new infections.
In South Korea, the number of coronavirus cases has increased rapidly in the past few days after a group of religious sect infections occurred in the southern city of Daegu last week.
The national toll of 556 cases is now the highest outside of China, apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
"The COVID-19 incident is at a serious turning point. The next few days will be crucial," Moon said after a government meeting on the virus.
"The government will raise the alert to the highest level of" grave "as recommended by experts, and will dramatically strengthen our response system," said President Moon. He also urged officials not to hesitate to take "unprecedentedly powerful measures" to contain the outbreak.
South Korea reported 123 new cases and two deaths on Sunday, bringing the nationwide number to four.
One of the victims was a patient who was treated for mental health problems in a hospital in Cheongdo, a southern city associated with the religious sect and in which around 100 new cases were reported.
Among the most recent infections, 75 affected the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the nearby city of Daegu, the Korean disease control and prevention centers said.
More than 300 cases have been linked to the church, starting with a 61-year-old woman who developed a fever on February 10 and attended at least four services in Daegu before being diagnosed.
Around 9,300 Shincheonji members in Daegu have either been quarantined or asked to stay at home, said KCDC director Jung Eun-kyeong. More than 1,240 said they had symptoms.
Daegu – South Korea's fourth largest city with 2.5 million inhabitants – reported more than 90 new cases on Sunday, bringing the city's total to 247, said Mayor Kwon Young-jin.
"The level of crisis in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province is serious," said Kwon Young-jin, who advised the locals to stay indoors.
The mayor asked all Shincheonji members with symptoms to report and be tested. The authorities have not yet reached around 670 Church members.
Shincheonji is often accused of being a cult and claims that its founder put on the cloak of Jesus Christ and would take 144,000 people to heaven on the last day.
But with more members of the Church than available places in heaven, they're supposed to have to fight for slots and pursue converts.
"Hiding is not the answer. Hiding can harm your health and that of your family and does not help you end the situation early," said Kwon.
Daegu and Cheongdo – the birthplace of Shincheonji's founder Lee Man-hee – were identified as "special management zones" on Friday.
The new cases included 18 people who had recently returned from a group pilgrimage to Israel, the KCDC said.
It was unclear how they got the infection, but authorities said that one of the victims was likely exposed to the virus before their trip, as Israel has so far reported only one confirmed COVID-19 case.
Israel has banned South Koreans from entering and has refused to allow non-Israelis to get off a Korean plane on Saturday.
The U.S. State Department raised its travel guide for South Korea on Saturday and joined a handful of countries that are increasing their vigilance following the rapid rise in the number of infections.
US citizens have been asked to "exercise extra caution" when traveling to South Korea, where "ongoing community expansion" has been reported.
"Ongoing proliferation in the community means that people in South Korea have been infected with the virus, but how or where they were infected is unknown and the spread is ongoing," the State Department said on its website.
Regardless of this, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued an Alert Level 2 travel health notice that said, "Older adults and people with chronic illnesses should consider postponing unnecessary travel. "
Britain has also "advised against all nationals to travel to Daegu and Cheongdo".
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)