Cases of COVID-19 coronavirus soared in South Korea as the country confirmed 433 on Saturday, sparking fears about greater transmission outside China.
At least 17 patients are in critical condition, the country’s vice health minister said, while health workers tried to screen thousands of patients.
The eight-fold increase in cases was in part linked to a religious organisation primarily in Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city, the country’s centres for disease control and prevention (KCDC) said.
The controversial Shincheonji church closed its 74 churches and affiliated institutions for quarantine. It expressed “deep regret” that many patients contracted the virus in its community.
The situation has also opened up the church to more criticism for its controversial beliefs.
“Shincheonji followers believe Lee Man-hee [the founder] is immortal and has an eternal life,” said Ji-il Tark at Busan Presbyterian University in South Korea. He added that they often sit close together in services and must attend services.
The church said they were cooperating with the quarantine and denounced other Christian groups’ claims as false.
Cases at the nearby Cheongdo Daenam hospital in South Korea also skyrocketed.
The KCDC warned anyone “who has attended a service at Shincheonji Church or visited Cheongdo Daenam hospital in February” to “stay home and avoid unnecessary outdoor activities”.
Israelis and Palestinians are asked to quarantine themselves
Israeli and Palestinian health authorities asked people who have been in close contact with a group of South Korean tourists recently to quarantine themselves, Saturday.
The request came after South Korea informed Israel that nine members of the group who toured Israel and the West Bank for a week this month tested positive for the new virus.
The tourists were diagnosed upon returning home.
Meanwhile, Israeli media reported that a South Korean airliner that landed at the country’s Ben Gurion airport Saturday evening will be sent back to Seoul after 12 Israelis on board are evacuated and quarantined.
The airplane was taxied away from the allotted terminal.
Israel’s Health Ministry said it’s investigating whether the Korean tourists had transmitted the virus while in Israel country.
The ministry published a list of places the tourists visited, including churches in Jerusalem and other cities, and instructed people who came into close contact with the group to notify the ministry and quarantine themselves for 14 days.
A similar warning was issued by the Palestinian health ministry.
On Friday, Israel said a passenger who was quarantined on a cruise ship in Japan was diagnosed with the virus after he was flown home with a group of 11 Israelis, making it the first case to be reported inside Israel. The others are in quarantine.
Three other Israelis are being treated in Japan after contracting the virus on the cruise ship.
There have been no cases recorded in the Palestinian territories.
China says the daily case count is decreasing
Chinese authorities have said the daily count of new cases has decreased, reporting 397 new ones.
Most of the new cases and many of the deaths were in Hubei province where the outbreak began.
There have been over 2,000 deaths in mainland China due to COVID-19.
China had severely restricted travel and imposed strict quarantine measures to stop the virus from spreading.
But a few Chinese provinces began easing restrictions after reporting no new cases in recent days, the Associated Press reported.
Iran reports a sixth death from the virus
Iranian health authorities reported a sixth death on Saturday.
The governor of Markazi province told the official IRNA news agency that tests of a patient who recently died in the central city of Arak were positive for the virus.
Earlier on Saturday, health authorities reported a fifth death from the coronavirus and said the fatality was among 10 new confirmed cases in Iran. It was not immediately clear whether the sixth fatality was among those 10.
So far, 28 cases have been confirmed in Iran, including the five who died. People are being treated for the virus in at least four different cities, including the capital, Tehran, where some pharmacies had already run out of masks and hand sanitiser. Other cities are Qom, Arak and Rasht.
The virus loomed over a nationwide parliamentary election in Iran on Friday. Many voters went to the polls wearing face masks.
Health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour made Saturday’s announcement for the latest figures on state TV, but did not specify when the fifth death occurred.
Two people had died earlier Friday from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Authorities reported two deaths previously this week.
Jahanpour said that of the 10 newly detected cases, two were in the capital of Tehran and eight were in the city of Qom.
That’s where the first two elderly patients died on Wednesday. He said the two patients in the capital had visited Qom or had links with the city.
Minoo Mohraz, an Iranian health ministry official, had said Friday that the virus “possibly came from Chinese workers who work in Qom and travelled to China.” She did not elaborate.
A Chinese company has been building a solar power plant in Qom.
As a preventive measure, Iran has closed schools in Tehran, Qom, Arak and three other provinces.
Also, the city of Tehran closed down all bistros and water fountains in the city’s subway stations until further notice.
Authorities also suspended popular football matches for 10 days and additional measures include daily cleanings of metro train cars and city buses.
Saudi Arabia takes preventive measures
Saudi Arabia announced that citizens and residents of the kingdom are not permitted to travel to Iran following the spread of the virus there.
Anyone previously in Iran will only be permitted entry to the country after the 14-day incubation period of the virus has passed.
The decision, while not specifically mentioning Iranian nationals, directly impacts thousands of Iranians who travel to Mecca and Medina for Islamic pilgrimages, effectively barring them from entry to Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom has already barred its citizens and residents from travel to China.
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