South Korea taking 'unprecedented' steps as Italy, Iran also struggle to contain COVID-19

South Korea raised its infectious disease alert to its highest level on Sunday as confirmed coronavirus cases in the country jumped to 602 and the death toll rose to six.

President Moon Jae-in puts South Korea on highest alert as number of infections soar

A member of the medical team takes a rest outside a hospital in Daegu, South Korea, on Sunday. (Im Hwa-young/Yonhap via The Associated Press)

Some of the latest numbers:

  • Wuhan doctor who postponed wedding to fight outbreak dies from virus.
  • Iran has 43 cases of COVID-19, eight deaths, and 15 new cases on Sunday.
  • Italy has 132 cases and three deaths.
  • South Korea has 602 cases and six deaths.
  • China reports a total of 76,936 cases, including 648 new cases on Saturday, up from 387 a day earlier.
  • Britain now has 13 cases, with four former cruise ship passengers testing positive.

South Korea's president said Sunday that he was putting his country on its highest alert for infectious diseases and ordered officials to take "unprecedented, powerful" steps to fight a soaring viral outbreak that has infected more than 600 people in the country, mostly in the last few days.

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.

The Iranian health ministry said there were now 43 confirmed cases in Iran, which did not report its first case of the virus until Wednesday. Most of the infections are in the Shia Muslim holy city of Qom. Armenia is closing its border with Iran for two weeks and suspending air traffic, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a Facebook post on Sunday.

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 three deaths.

Masked carnival revellers wear protective face masks at Venice Carnival in Venice, Italy, on Sunday. (Manuel Silvestri/Reuters)

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. Zaia later made the decision to call off Carnival.

On Sunday night, neighbouring Austria stopped all train traffic to and from Italy after suspicions that a train at its southern border with Italy had two passengers possibly infected with the virus on board, authorities said. Austria's interior ministry said it had been informed by Italy's railway company that two people had fever and stopped the train at the Brenner crossing before it could enter Austria.

The train was coming from Venice en route to Munich in southern Germany. Italian state railways said it didn't immediately have additional details.

Delaying start of new school year

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said 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 coronavirus, bringing the country's total to 602. The country also reported three more fatalities, raising its death toll to six.

Mainland China reported 648 new infections for a total of 76,936. The daily death toll fell slightly to 97. In all, 2,442 people have died in the country from COVID-19, the respiratory illness people get after becoming infected.

People wearing protective face masks walk on a street in Beijing on Sunday. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

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 per cent of the country's cases are in Hubei, where the death toll has also been higher than in the rest of the nation.

More than half of cases linked to church

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 Centres 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.

Workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant at a local market in Daegu, South Korea, on Sunday. ( Hwa-young/Yonhap via AP)

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.

Officials signalled that regular activities should gradually resume after the virus prompted an extension of last month's Lunar New Year holiday. Many workplaces have opted to have their employees work remotely, and schools are conducting online classes.

WATCH | Dr. David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology in Toronto, talks about the spread of coronavirus:

China has slowed coronavirus spread, but can other countries?

3 years ago
Duration 5:39
Canadian infectious disease expert Dr. David Fisman talks about the spread of COVID-19 as new clusters are reported in Iran, Italy and South Korea.

In Beijing, most residential communities have implemented "closed management," limiting the number of people per household who can go in and out using exit-entry cards and requiring those just returning to the Chinese capital to isolate themselves at home for 14 days.

A cluster of infections was reported out of Beijing's Fuxing Hospital. The facility, which has 34 confirmed cases, has been closed off to protect the surrounding community, said a statement from Xicheng district authorities.

More than 500 cases also have been found in prisons across the country.

3rd Diamond Princess fatality

A cruise ship passenger who had been hospitalized after testing positive for the novel coronavirus died on Sunday, the third fatality from the Diamond Princess, Japan's health ministry said.

The ministry also announced 57 more cases of infections on board the ship, including 55 crew members and two passengers who had infected roommates and are in a prolonged quarantine at a government facility.

With the new cases, 691 people have been infected on the ship, or nearly one-fifth of the ship's original population of 3,711. Japan has confirmed a total of 838 cases and four deaths from the virus,  including those on the ship. Of the 256 Canadian passengers who were initially quarantined on the Diamond Princess, 48 contracted the virus.

Four former passengers tested positive for the virus in England on Sunday after being moved off the ship in Yokohama, Japan, chief medical officer Chris Whitty said on Twitter. That brings the number of cases in the U.K. to 13.

Wuhan doctor who postponed wedding to fight virus dies

Colleagues on Friday mourned the death of Peng Yinhua, a 29-year-old Chinese doctor who postponed his wedding to join the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak, after he died from the virus Thursday night, leaving behind a pregnant wife.

Peng, a respiratory acute care medical professional, became infected while treating patients of the coronavirus at the First People's Hospital of Jiangxia District in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. He was hospitalized on Jan. 25 and transferred to Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital for treatment on Jan. 30.

Peng is fondly remembered by his colleagues as an honest, optimistic and hard-working man who is always ready to help.

Flower laid by colleagues are see under a projected image of Peng Yinhua, a doctor who died from the coronavirus, at the Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital. (China Central Television via Reuters)

"Peng worked for 48 straight hours after the outbreak. The clinic was short of doctors, and he wanted to help his colleagues. He was the only male doctor in the department besides the director," recalled Peng's wife.

Peng and his wife tied the knot in November 2017 but the wedding celebration was postponed to Feb. 1 this year as he was attending a training course. Despite the hospital having allowed him to take a holiday for his wedding, Peng offered to delay the big day to stand with his colleagues amid the epidemic.

Peng never got to send out his wedding invitations, which are still in his office drawer.

"We made a promise that after we win this battle, we would go to his wedding and share his happiness," said Jiang Junxia, a colleague of Peng.

With files from Reuters