SEOUL, March 2 (UPI) — Coronavirus cases in South Korea reached 4,212 as the country continues to face a widespread outbreak centered around the southeastern city of Daegu and a secretive religious sect.
The death toll from the COVID-19 infectious disease rose by four to 22, including an 86-year-old woman and an 81-year-old man, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The KCDC announced 476 new cases on Monday morning, with totals soaring while health authorities test around 210,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a controversial new religious movement that many consider a cult.
Over 57 percent of South Korea’s COVID-19 cases are connected to the church, the KCDC said, and roughly 88 percent are concentrated in Daegu, a city of 2.5 million people, and its neighboring province of North Gyeongsang.
The number of cases spiked dramatically after a 61-year-old woman who is a member of the Shincheonji church in Daegu was confirmed as the 31st COVID-19 patient in the country on Feb. 17. She had attended services at the church both before and after exhibiting symptoms, health authorities said.
The church is highly secretive, with members often concealing their ties in public, while large gatherings and close personal contact the norm for the group’s services. There has been a public backlash against the sect, with many accusing the church leaders of hiding members and not cooperating fully with health authorities.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon filed a criminal complaint to prosecutors seeking to charge the Shincheonji movement’s leader, 88-year-old Lee Man-hee, and 12 other church officials on charges of murder and violation of the law on the prevention and control of infectious diseases, a statement released by the mayor’s office said Monday.
“The prosecution should investigate and punish key leaders of the Shincheonji, accountable for the recent spread of the deadly virus, in a swift and stern manner,” Park said.
Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin also filed a complaint against the Shincheonji church on Friday, saying that the group had omitted names from their membership lists submitted to the government.
The Shincheonji church issued a statement on Sunday calling accusations against the church a “witch hunt” and saying that the group has fully cooperated with authorities.
“[T]he allegation that Shincheonji Church of Jesus is intentionally hiding the number of its congregants is absolutely not true,” the statement said. “Shincheonji is aware of the present health crisis and, considering the health and safety of citizens and congregants as the highest priority, has submitted information based on facts.”
The group said it has supplied a list of more than 210,000 members in South Korea and over 33,000 members based outside the country. It also said it later submitted a group of some 65,000 “trainees,” which it had at first withheld because they were not church members.
On Monday, the group’s founder appeared for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak at a news conference in which he apologized to the public and the government for its role in the outbreak.
“On behalf of our members, I would like to offer my sincere apology to the people,” he said, falling to his knees and bowing before reporters at the conference held outside a church training center in Gapyeong, roughly 35 miles east of Seoul.
He vowed the church would support health authorities “with all our resources.”
South Korean authorities continue to fight to contain the outbreak as well as treat the swelling number of patients amid a shortage of hospital beds and personnel in Daegu.
Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said in a briefing on Monday that the government opened a new facility in Daegu for about 160 patients with mild symptoms to free up overtaxed hospitals as well as to monitor those who had been self-quarantining at home. Two more facilities will be set up this week, he added.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in an address on Sunday that about 250 public health physicians from around the country have been dispatched to the Daegu area while many other medical professionals are volunteering their time to help deal with the crisis.
Moon said the government is working to ease the economic fallout from the outbreak and has started providing support to small businesses as well as hard-hit service industries such as tourism, dining and air travel.
“The COVID-19 outbreak can threaten our lives temporarily, but it cannot break our unity and hope,” he said. “[W] e will win the battle against COVID-19 without fail and revive our economy, making it more dynamic.”
The start of the spring semester at schools around the country was pushed back for a second time since the outbreak began, the Ministry of Education announced Monday. All levels from kindergarten through high school will start the new semester on March 23, three weeks later than the scheduled start date.