Seoul: South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Sunday announced that he was putting his country on its highest alert for the infectious disease and ordered health officials to take unprecedented, powerful steps to fight the soaring viral outbreak that has infected hundreds in the country.
He also said that his government had decided to increase its anti-virus alert level by one notch to Red, the highest level.
The step was last taken in 2009 to guard against a novel influenza outbreak that killed more than 260 people in South Korea. Under the highest alert level, authorities can order the temporary closure of schools and reduce the operation of public transportation and flights to and from South Korea.
Moon's education minister, Yoo Eun-hae, said later Sunday that the new school year for kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools in South Korea has been put off by one week and will start on March 9.
Moon said that the outbreak has reached a crucial watershed, and that the next few days will be critical. We shouldn't be bound by regulations and hesitate to take unprecedented, powerful measures, he said.
South Korea announced 169 more cases of the new virus, bringing the country's total to 602. The country also reported three more fatalities, raising its death toll to six.
In Iran, the health ministry said there were now 43 confirmed cases in the country, which did not report its first case of the virus until Wednesday.
In Italy's northern Lombardy region, which includes the nation's financial capital, Milan, the governor announced Sunday that the number of confirmed cases in the region stood at 89. Italy now has 132 cases, including two deaths.
Venice, which is full of tourists for Carnival events, reported its first two cases, said Veneto Gov. Luca Zaia, whose region includes the lagoon city. It wasn't immediately known if the two infected had participated in Carnival festivities.
Meanwhile, China also reported hundreds of more infections for a total of about 77,000, and Iran raised its death toll from the virus to eight __ the highest toll outside of China. While the number of patients worldwide is increasing, some virus clusters have shown no link to China and experts are struggling to trace where those clusters started. In all, 2,442 people have died in the country from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
The number of new Chinese cases has seesawed daily but has remained under 1,000 for the past four days. Several changes to how the infections are counted, however, have made it difficult to draw conclusions from the figures.
The central Chinese city of Wuhan and other parts of Hubei province, where the outbreak first emerged in December, remain under lockdown. More than 80% of the country's cases are in Hubei, where the death toll has also been higher than in the rest of the nation.
Most of the South Korean cases have been reported in the country's fourth-largest city, Daegu, and the surrounding area. According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 320 cases have also been confirmed to have links to a branch of the local Shincheonji church in Daegu, which has become the biggest cluster of viral infections in South Korea.
Shincheonji, which has been viewed as a cult movement by mainstream Christian organizations, tried to defend itself from growing public anger directed at the church.
In a video statement posted on its website, church spokesman Simon Kim said.
Shincheonji has shut down all its 1,100 local churches and other facilities since one of its church members tested positive for the virus on Feb. 18, the first patient in Daegu.
Earlier Sunday, Daegu Mayor Kwon Yong-jin said there were concerns that the number of those infected in the city could see yet another massive increase because authorities were launching intensive examinations of church members with virus-related symptoms.
China's Politburo, made up of senior officials of the ruling Communist Party, cautioned Friday that while the epidemic has been "preliminarily contained," the country has yet to see a turning point.