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Biggest daily jump brings total to 1,766

Authorities track down all adherents of the Shincheonji sect
Feb 28,2020
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Government employees make telephone calls to adherents of the Shincheonji religion to ask if they are feeling any symptom of the novel coronavirus in the main conference hall of the Daejeon Metropolitan Government Office on Thursday. Health authorities tried to get in touch with all believers after the Shincheonji sect handed over contact information. [NEWS1]
Korea announced 505 new coronavirus infections Thursday, the highest amount for a single day, as government authorities tried tracking down followers of the Christian sect that has seen many victims.

Total infections rose to 1,766 by Thursday at 4 p.m., according to data from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). One more death was reported, bringing fatalities to 13.

As in the past week, most infections were in Daegu, Korea’s fourth-largest city in the southeastern part of the country, where a large Shincheonji church has become a focus of the epidemiological investigation.

Of Thursday’s 505 new cases, 422 were in Daegu and 28 in the surrounding province of North Gyeongsang, another heavily affected area.

Seoul counted seven more infections, bringing total infections in the capital to 56, including at least 11 in Jongno District, central Seoul, and nine in Songpa District, southern Seoul.

The most recent coronavirus patient to have died was a 74-year-old man in Daegu who was a Shincheonji follower, city officials said Thursday in a press briefing. He died at around 9 a.m. Thursday in an ambulance on his way to the hospital after testing positive for the virus Tuesday.

Daegu officials said he was on a list of some 9,000 Shincheonji adherents in Daegu provided by the controversial Christian sect and was contacted by the government to be asked about his symptoms. He said he was feeling a fever and a cough from last Saturday and was tested Sunday. Results came out positive Tuesday.

He was quarantined at his home, waiting for an empty hospital bed when his symptoms deteriorated Thursday morning. He died before reaching the hospital.

By Thursday 4 p.m., 26 out of 1,766 coronavirus patients in Korea had been discharged from hospitals after full recoveries, two on Thursday alone, while the rest were mostly in stable condition.

Local government offices have been tracking down Shincheonji followers to ask about their symptoms and put them through virus tests.

Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip said Wednesday he received a list of 212,000 adherents across the nation from Shincheonji and would divide the list by each region to ask local government offices to check on their Shincheonji residents.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said Wednesday night he was given a list of 28,300 Shincheonji followers in the capital and that teams of about 100 people from each district office would go through the list as quickly as possible. The goal, he said, was to contact every single person by Thursday.

Korea’s national police force announced Thursday it set aside nearly 5,750 officers across the nation to be mobilized in case government officials can’t reach Shincheonji followers on their lists.

Kim said Thursday in a press briefing that the government asked Shincheonji for an additional list of roughly 70,000 people who are categorized as “trainees” in the sect, which Shincheonji previously refused to offer, citing the “difficulty” of handing over a list of members who aren’t official Shincheonji followers yet. The exact number of Shincheonji trainees is unknown.

As the government complains about Shincheonji’s uncooperative behavior, a group of self-proclaimed “Shincheonji victims” held a press conference in front of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seocho District, southern Seoul, Thursday morning to say they were filing a criminal complaint against Shincheonji’s leader, Lee Man-hee.

The group accused Lee of violating the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act by concealing the sect’s number of adherents and disrupting the government’s epidemiological investigations. The victims also accused Lee of embezzlement and breach of trust, urging prosecutors to raid Shincheonji’s headquarters in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi, and its office in Busan, which established and managed a Shincheonji church in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Ulsan police said Thursday that a female Shincheonji worshipper in her 60s died the night before after falling from her home on the seventh floor of a building, though details of the accident, including whether it was a suicide, were not revealed.

Officers from the Ulsan Nambu Police Precinct said health officials had contacted the woman and her husband because she was a Shincheonji worshipper and asked them to submit to a virus test.

Results for both turned out negative, and they weren’t placed under house quarantine. Officers said the woman’s husband wasn’t a Shincheonji adherent.

In Jeonju, North Jeolla, a 43-year-old civil servant in the city’s general affairs division whose duty included tracking down Shincheonji churchgoers was found dead in his home on Thursday morning by his wife. Citing testimony from the wife, officers from the Jeonju Wansan Police Precinct said the civil servant complained about his heavy coronavirus-related workload and used to get off work past 10 p.m. lately. An autopsy is planned to discover the precise reason of his death, Jeonju officers said.

At Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo County, North Gyeongsang, some 60 coronavirus patients who were placed under cohort isolation will be transferred to other hospitals for better treatment, health officials said Thursday.

Cohort isolation refers to the shutdown of an entire medical institution to prevent the spread of a contagious disease. Daenam Hospital was one of the first hospitals to be placed under this measure last week as total infections traced to the medical facility continued to rise, reaching at least 114 by Thursday 4 p.m. Among Korea’s 13 coronavirus deaths, seven have been linked to Daenam Hospital.

How the virus first reached the hospital is still a mystery, though the brother of Shincheonji leader Lee Man-hee was hospitalized at Daenam for five days late last month before he died. His funeral was held there, too, and Shincheonji adherents are known to have visited.

As the virus continues to spread across the nation, government officials working on the front lines have also fallen victim, getting infected and bringing virus scares into their offices.

On Thursday, a building of the Daegu Metropolitan Government Office temporarily closed after an employee who worked there tested positive for the virus. Some 220 civil servants in the building were told to work from home.

Civil servants at the Seongju County Office in North Gyeongsang were forced to take similar measures Thursday when a worker’s family member tested positive that morning. Other local government offices that temporarily shut down recently include the Gunwi County Office in North Gyeongsang and the Gangneung City Office in Gangwon.

In Seoul, Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, who has led anti-Moon Jae-in protests at Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul, for months, announced Thursday afternoon that this week’s rally will be held as planned, defying a temporary ban on all political rallies in the area by the Seoul Metropolitan Government Office.

Seoul police warned of “stern countermeasures” against the rally’s organizers if they push ahead with their weekly demonstrations.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, KIM YOUN-HO AND KIM JUNG-SEOK [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]