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South Korea becomes newest front in shifting virus outbreak

Workers wearing protective gears help clean each other's suits after disinfecting as a precaution against the coronavirus at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. South Korea on Friday declared a "special management zone" around a southeastern city where a surging viral outbreak, largely linked to a church in Daegu, threatens to overwhelm the region's health system. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

By HYUNG-JIN KIM

and MATT SEDENSKY

Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — Cases of a new virus swelled Friday in South Korea, making the country the newest front in a widening global outbreak centered in China and now reverberating elsewhere.

South Korea said two people have died and 204 have been infected with the virus, quadruple the number of cases it had two days earlier. Schools were shuttered Friday, churches told worshipers to stay away and some mass gatherings were banned.

The multiplying caseload in South Korea showed the ease with which the illness can spread. Initial infections were linked to China, but new cases in South Korea and Iran — where there have been four deaths — don’t show a clear connection to travel there. In an emerging cluster of illnesses in northern Italy, the first to fall ill met with someone who had returned from China on Jan. 21 without experiencing any symptoms of the new virus, health authorities said.

The World Health Organization warned that clusters not directly linked to travel, such as the ones in South Korea and Iran, suggest that time may be running out to contain the outbreak.

“The window of opportunity is still there. But our window of opportunity is narrowing,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We need to act quickly before it closes completely.”

Tedros singled out Iran’s discovery of 18 cases and four deaths in two days — and that a traveler from Iran carried the virus to Lebanon, and another traveler from Iran to Canada.

“These dots are very concerning — take them as dots or trends,” he said.

South Korea Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun started a government meeting on the health emergency by saying, “We have entered an emergency phase.”

“Our efforts until now had been focused on blocking the illness from entering the country,” he said. “But we will now shift the focus on preventing the illness from spreading further in local communities.”

Daegu, a southeastern city of 2.5 million that is the country’s fourth largest, emerged as the focus of government efforts to contain the disease known as COVID-19, and Chung promised support to ease a shortage in hospital beds, medical personnel and equipment. Mayor Kwon Young-jin of Daegu has urged residents to stay inside, even wearing masks at home, to stem further infection.

The first case in Daegu was reported on Tuesday. By Friday, the city and its surrounding areas had 152, including South Korea’s first two fatalities from COVID-19.

Nationwide, the numbers told of a ballooning problem. There were 20 new cases reported Wednesday, 53 on Thursday and 100 on Friday.

The central government declared a “special management zone” around Daegu on Friday, which didn’t restrict movement of residents or supersede local officials’ power but served as official recognition of the problem.

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