As a fifth death is announced, South Korea’s president authorizes bold measures.
President Moon Jae-in on Sunday put South Korea on the highest possible alert in its fight against the coronavirus, a move that empowers the government to lock down cities and take other sweeping measures to contain the outbreak.
“The coming few days will be a critical time for us,” Mr. Moon said at an emergency meeting of government officials to discuss the outbreak, which in just days has spiraled to 602 confirmed infections and five deaths. “This will be a momentous time when the central government, local governments, health officials and medical personnel and the entire people must wage an all-out, concerted response to the problem.”
Mr. Moon did not announce any specific measures to fight the virus. But by raising the alert to Level 4, or “serious,” he authorized the government to take steps like banning visitors from specific countries and restricting public transportation, as well as locking down cities, as China has done.
Many of South Korea’s coronavirus cases are in the southeastern city of Daegu, which has essentially been placed under a state of emergency, though people are still free to enter and leave the city.
More than half of the people confirmed to have been infected are either members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect with a strong presence in Daegu, or their relatives or other contacts. The authorities have said that they were unable to contact hundreds of the church’s members to screen them for the virus.
In a video posted on Sunday, a spokesman for Shincheonji, Kim Si-mon, said the church had cooperated fully since the first infection of one of its members was confirmed, handing over the names of thousands of members who had attended services in Daegu. He protested what he called negative news coverage of the church, which many mainstream churches in South Korea consider a cult.
“We, too, are citizens of this country and victims of the disease originating in China,” Mr. Kim said. “In fact, we are the biggest group of victims.”
The spike of cases in South Korea, along with rising numbers in Iran and Italy, has added to fears that the window to avert a global pandemic is narrowing. The World Health Organization has warned African leaders of the urgent need to prepare for the virus; it identified 13 African countries as priorities because of their direct links to China, which still accounts for the vast majority of confirmed infections and deaths.
On Sunday, China raised its official numbers to 76,936 cases and 2,442 deaths.
Despite a ban, rallies in Seoul show no sign of ending.
In Seoul, South Korea’s capital, large demonstrations of all political stripes are a routine fact of life. But with the country’s coronavirus cases soaring, the authorities say that needs to stop, at least for now.
In a televised address on Saturday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun urged people to comply with a ban on large protests in the capital, warning that the government would deal “sternly” with people who participate in “massive rallies,” as well as those who hoard goods or interfere with quarantine efforts.
But thousands of Christian activists defied the ban that same day, gathering in central Seoul for their weekly protest against President Moon Jae-in, whom they accuse of coddling North Korea and mismanaging the economy.
Police officers were deployed in large numbers but made no attempt to disperse the crowd. Most of the protesters wore masks, but they booed Mayor Park Won-soon when he asked them to leave for the sake of public health.
“We care more about the country and our fatherland than our own lives,” the Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, who organized the rally, shouted at the cheering crowd. He vowed to hold another rally next Saturday.
Iran, saying eight have died, closes schools across 14 provinces.
Iran announced it would close schools, universities and cultural centers across 14 provinces starting Sunday in an effort to curb the coronavirus, which has killed at least eight people in the country, state television said.
Just days ago, Iran said it was untouched by the virus, and the sudden increase in cases has raised concerns that it may be experiencing a significant outbreak. Iran’s health ministry said Saturday that 43 people had tested positive, with eight deaths, state-run Press TV reported.
Experts have said that based on the number of dead, the total number of cases is probably much higher, as Covid-19 appears to kill about one out of 50 people infected.
Eight of the 10 new cases were in the city of Qom, Press TV reported, citing a health ministry spokesman, Kianush Jahanpour. Qom has been the epicenter of the outbreak in Iran, and mosques and schools were closed there on Thursday.
Mehr, an Iranian news agency, reported that the government had begun mass distribution of masks in cities affected by the outbreak.
The closures of schools, universities and cultural centers will last a week. It covers Qom, the capital of Tehran, and a dozen more provinces.
The authorities have also said that concerts and cultural events would be canceled for a week and movie theaters closed, while sports competitions will be held without spectators, state television reported.
The origin of the outbreak in Iran remains unclear, though some officials have speculated the virus could have been transmitted by workers from China.
The State Department raises its travel advisories for Japan and South Korea.
The State Department raised its travel advisories for Japan and South Korea on Saturday to Level 2, the second-lowest out of four grades, recommending that travelers “exercise increased caution” due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The advisories said that while many Covid-19 cases have been associated with travel to and from mainland China, or contact with someone who had recently been there, South Korea and Japan were now reporting “sustained community spread.” That means it is not known how or where people became infected, and the spread is ongoing, the advisories said.
In Japan, health officials are investigating clusters of cases that have taken on more urgency now that hundreds of passengers have been released from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had the largest concentration of the coronavirus outside mainland China. Cases in South Korea surged to 556 on Sunday, with four deaths.
Japanese officials said Saturday that 23 of the Diamond Princess passengers had mistakenly been cleared without a recent valid test. Those passengers have since been tested and posed “no risk of infection,” the Japanese Health Ministry said.
A vast American containment effort relies on local officials.
Since early February, thousands of people returning to the United States from mainland China have been asked to isolate themselves at home for 14 days. Preventing the spread of infectious disease is the essence of public health work, but the scale of efforts by state and local health departments across the country to contain any potential spread of the coronavirus has rarely been seen, experts said.
Local health officials check in daily by email, phone or text. They arrange tests for people who come down with symptoms, along with groceries and isolated housing, in some cases. There is no centralized tally in the United States of people being monitored or asked to remain in isolation, and they are scattered across the nation’s nearly 3,000 local health jurisdictions.
People arriving from mainland China are added each day, while those who have completed 14-day “self-quarantine” periods are released from oversight. In California alone, the department of public health has been monitoring more than 6,700 returning travelers from China. Health officials in Washington State have tracked about 800, and officials in Illinois more than 200.
Even as the first of 34 confirmed coronavirus patients in the United States have recovered in recent days, health officials say they are preparing for what some fear could still be a much wider outbreak.
So far, officials say, the containment effort has been largely orderly. The only known transmission of the virus in the United States has involved people in the same household. But no matter how effective health workers are in monitoring their charges, “there will always be some leakage,’’ said John Wiesman, the secretary of health in Washington State.
“There is no way, with something this large, that you can make it seal-proof,’’ Dr. Wiesman said. While enforcing total compliance with isolation orders may not be possible, he said, “We have to try for 80 to 85 percent, and hopefully that will work.’’
Russian disinformation blames the U.S. for the virus.
State Department officials say that thousands of Russia-linked social media accounts are spreading disinformation about the coronavirus, including a conspiracy theory that the United States is behind the Covid-19 outbreak.
American monitors identified the campaign in mid-January. Agence-France Presse first reported on the assessment on Saturday.
“Russia’s intent is to sow discord and undermine U.S. institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns,” said Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia.
“By spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response.”
The effort was described as being carried out by several thousand Russia-linked accounts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, which post similar messages at similar times in English, Spanish, French, German and Italian.
Fringe theories of uncertain origin have accused China of engineering the virus, including suggestions that it is an escaped bioweapon.
Misinformation about the virus — whether shared purposefully or unwittingly — is so rife that the World Health Organization has called it an “infodemic.” The W.H.O. has been working with big tech companies to try to quell the flood of rumors and falsehoods.
Reporting was contributed by Choe Sang-Hun, Derrick Bryson Taylor, Austin Ramzy, Tess Felder, Amy Harmon, Farah Stockman and Edward Wong.