South Korea reported 229 more coronavirus cases on Saturday, the sharpest increase in infections to date. Many new cases concerned patients who were treated for mental health problems in the hospital.
The 433 national toll is the highest outside of China alongside the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The increase in hospital cases in the southern city of Cheongdo followed a similar increase among members of a religious sect in the nearby city of Daegu.
The new cases included a Samsung Electronics employee at a plant in Gumi, 200 kilometers southeast of Seoul, which prompted the technology giant to shut down operations there until Monday.
In the meantime, 95 of the newly confirmed cases were "related" to patients or employees of the Cheongdo Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.
"Most of the hospital's diagnosed patients were hospitalized for mental illness," deputy health minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters.
Some cases show "no confirmed epidemiological correlations," which means that they are not sure where or how they got the virus, he added.
The authorities reported another death on Saturday, which increased the number to two. Both victims had been hospitalized.
Regardless, more than 200 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus are now infected, starting with a 61-year-old woman who attended at least four services in the Daegu branch of the church before diagnosis.
KCDC said that around 9,300 Shincheonji members in Daegu were either quarantined in facilities or asked to stay at home. Among them, 1,261 said they had symptoms, health officials added.
The mayor of Daegu – South Korea's fourth largest city with more than 2.5 million inhabitants – has advised the locals to stay inside while restricting access to an important U.S. military base in the region.
Church "deeply sorry"
One of the Shincheonji members in Daegu visited China – where the deadly virus was first discovered – in January, while three others have probably traveled to other countries, said KCDC director Jung.
Cheongdo, 27 kilometers south of Daegu, is the birthplace of Shincheonji's founder Lee Man-hee.
District officials said Friday that a three-day funeral for one of the members of the church took place in a hall of Cheongdo Hospital three weeks ago.
Shincheonji is often accused of being a cult and claims that its founder Lee put on the cloak of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people to heaven on the day of judgment.
But with more parishioners than available places in heaven, they should fight for slots and persistently and secretly pursue converts.
President Moon Jae-in called on Friday for a "thorough investigation" of everyone who attended the mourning and Shincheonji services.
The central government had declared Daegu and Cheongdo "Special Administrative Zones" on Friday. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the region will be supported with medical staff, beds and equipment.
Shincheonji apologized and shut down his services and meetings nationwide.
"We are very sorry that one of our members, who saw her condition as a cold because she had not traveled abroad, caused many in our church to become infected, thereby causing concern to the local community," said a statement ,
But his leader Lee told his followers that the outbreak was "devil-made" and compared it to the Biblical test of Job, the Yonhap news agency reported.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)