South Korea reported 142 more coronavirus cases on Saturday, the sharpest increase in infections to date. More than half of the new cases concerned a hospital in a southern city.
The 346 national toll is now the second highest outside of China. The increase in cases at a hospital in Cheongdo is due to a similar increase in members of a religious sect in the nearby city of Daegu.
Among the new cases, 92 were "related" to patients or staff at Cheongdo Daenam Hospital, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.
"Most of the hospital's patients who were diagnosed were hospitalized for mental illness," Seoul's Deputy Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters.
The authorities reported another death on Saturday, which increased the number to two. Both victims had been hospitalized.
More than 150 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus are now infected, starting with a 61-year-old woman who developed a fever on February 10, but attended at least four services at the church's Daegu branch before diagnosis.
The mayor of Daegu – South Korea's fourth largest city with over 2.5 million inhabitants – has advised the locals to stay inside while restricting access to an important U.S. military base in the region.
KCDC said that around 9,300 Shincheonji members in Daegu were either quarantined in facilities or asked to stay at home. Among them, 544 said they had symptoms, health officials added.
Cheongdo, about 27 kilometers south of Daegu, is the birthplace of Shincheonji's founder Lee Man-hee.
District officials said on Friday that a three-day funeral for his brother took place in a hall of the 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 personnel, beds and equipment, and the cabinet will meet three times a week to discuss the outbreak.
The Seoul authorities have banned public rallies in three main locations for health and safety reasons.
The U.S. Army garrison in Daegu, home to around 10,000 soldiers, civilians, and family members, has restricted access and directed all American troops who recently participated in Shincheonji services to self-quarantine.
Shincheonji apologized and suspended his services and gatherings 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.)