SEOUL – South Korea’s coronavirus cases rose to 6,767 on Saturday, up by 174 from late Friday, with more than 60% of the total cases linked to a secretive church at the center of the country’s outbreak, health authorities said.
The death toll also rose to 46 from 44, Kwon Jun-wook, the Korea Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention’s (KCDC) deputy director told a briefing on Saturday.
The number of people infected with the contagious disease has spiked in South Korea since mid-February when a 61-year-old woman known as “Patient 31” tested positive after attending religious services at a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southeastern city of Daegu.
A new smaller cluster case reported on Saturday at an apartment complex in Daegu, where some members of the church live, KCDC said.
“63.5% of the total cases is related to the Shincheonji Church and its members, but there is a possibility that new cases increase as tests are still underway,” said the deputy director.
Lee Man-hee, the founder of the church, apologized on Monday after one church member infected many others, calling the epidemic a “great calamity”.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), however, voiced concerns over members of the Shincheonji Church being blamed for the spread of the coronavirus.
“We urge the South Korean government to condemn scapegoating and to respect religious freedom as it responds to the outbreak,” the USCIRF said on Twitter on Friday.
The coronavirus, which emerged in China, has spread to more than 90 countries, infecting more than 100,000 people and killing over 3,400 people globally.
South Korea has the highest national tally of confirmed cases outside of China, prompting nearly 100 countries to impose curbs on travelers from South Korea.
On Friday, South Korea said it would suspend visas and visa waivers for Japan in response to Tokyo’s own travel restrictions on Koreans, as fears over the coronavirus reignited a feud between the neighbors dating back to before World War Two.
Dr. Mike Ryan, top emergencies expert of the World Health Organization (WHO), told a briefing in Geneva on Friday that both Japan and South Korea should focus on managing the epidemic and saving lives, but not on “a political spat over travel restrictions.”
The WHO said on Friday all countries should make containing the coronavirus outbreak their top priority.