S. Korea to test 200,000 members of church at center of coronavirus outbreak

Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith, Reuters

Posted at Feb 25 2020 12:34 PM

A woman wears a mask to prevent the coronavirus, in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 24, 2020. Heo Ran, Reuters

SEOUL - South Korean health authorities said on Tuesday they aim to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the center of a surge of new coronavirus cases that has taken the country's tally to 893.

South Korea's fast-spreading outbreak has fueled fears that the coronavirus, which is believed to have begun in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, is developing into a global pandemic.

About 60 percent of South Korea's cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where the first case was reported in a 61-year-old woman, but it is not known how she became infected.

Of 60 new cases reported on Tuesday, 16 were in the southeastern city of Daegu, where the church is located, and 33 from nearby North Gyeongsang Province, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

South Korea also reported its ninth death from the virus, a patient from a hospital in North Gyeongsang Province.

The leader of the Shincheonji Church said it had agreed to provide authorities with the names of all its members in South Korea, estimated by media at about 215,000 people.

The government would conduct coronavirus tests on all members "as soon as possible" once it got the information, the prime minister's office said in a statement.

"It is essential to test all of the church members in order to contain the spread of the virus and relieve public anxiety," the office said.

Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip said the priority was to test some 1,300 of the 9,200 members of the Daegu church who are showing symptoms, which he said would be completed by Wednesday.

"We will make utmost efforts with the goal of stabilizing the situation in Daegu within 4 weeks," he told a briefing, adding that the government would trace all other Daegu citizens having symptoms for isolation and checks.


The church, which has faced public criticism of its handling of the outbreak, asked the government to ensure the personal details of its members did not become public.

The church founder and self-proclaimed messiah, Lee Man-hee, said the church was cooperating with the government to stop the outbreak and beside its members, it would also check people in church training programs.

"All of these will be implemented on the premise that the government takes steps to protect their personal information," Lee said in a letter posted online.

North Gyeongsang Province has also seen surges in cases in recent weeks, most from a hospital in Cheongdo, which was designated a "special care zone" along with Daegu last week.

On Tuesday, 21 of the 33 cases from the province were confirmed to have come from a residential home for the disabled people in Chilgok County, also near Daegu, traced to a worker there whose mother is a member of the Shincheonji church in Daegu, Governor Lee Cheol-woo said.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, raised its warning level for South Korea and recommended Americans avoid all nonessential travel to the country, citing the "widespread, ongoing outbreak" of the coronavirus.

The US and South Korean militaries said they were considering scaling back joint training due, in one of the first concrete signs of the virus' fallout on global US military activities.

South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told a news conference in Washington 13 cases had been confirmed in the South Korean armed forces.

More than 400 South Korean citizens were set to return from Israel, which imposed an entry ban and arranged 2 charter flights after more than 2 dozen South Korean Catholics who had gone on a pilgrimage there tested positive for the virus.