President Moon Jae-in has vowed to take "unprecedented, powerful" measures following the discovery of 169 new cases and three more deaths. South Korea now has the largest number of cases outside of China at 602.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced on Sunday that the country has raised its alert over the coronavirus to the highest level following a rapid surge in new infections in a single day.
"The COVID-19 incident faces a grave turning point. The next few days will be crucial," Moon said following an emergency government meeting.
"The government will raise the alert level to the highest level of 'grave' according to experts' recommendations and drastically strengthen our response system," he added.
Moon said the declaration would ensure the government strengthens its overall emergency response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
He called on authorities to take "unprecedented, powerful" measures to contain the epidemic, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap.
The move introduces the same sort of containment measures only seen in China until now.
On Sunday, South Korea reported three more deaths from the coronavirus and 169 new cases. The country's total number of confirmed coronavirus cases currently stands at 602, having more than doubled from Friday to Saturday. The three deaths take the nationwide toll to five.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the country will take "unprecedented, powerful" measures to fight coronavirus.
Most cases connected to religious sect
More than half of the new cases were linked to a Christian church in the city of Daegu in the south of the country, after a 61-year-old woman who attended services there tested positive for the virus. The woman had no recent record of overseas travel.
The woman, who developed a fever on February 10, attended at least four services at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus before being diagnosed. The church is seen as belonging to a religious sect.
Around 9,300 Shincheonji members in Daegu have either been quarantined or have been asked to stay at home, said Jung Eun-kyeong, director of Korea's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
According to KCDC, more than 55% of the total confirmed cases were connected to the Shincheonji Church.
"The crisis level of Daegu and the North Gyeongsang province is grave," said Mayor Kwon Young-jin.
He asked all Shincheonji Church members with symptoms to come forward and be tested. Authorities have yet to reach around 670 members.
"Hiding is not the answer. If you hide, it could hurt your health, your family's health, and will not help in the early cessation of the situation," Kwon said.
Daegu is South Korea's fourth-largest city and has a population of 2.5 million.
Shincheonji members toured Israel
Israel's education ministry said some 180 Israeli students and 19 staff members were ordered to begin a two-week quarantine from Sunday after having come into contact with South Korean tourists who contracted the coronavirus.
Several members of the Shincheonji Church visited Israeli sites between February 8 and February 15. Upon their return to South Korea, 18 of them were found to be infected with the virus.
Israel's health ministry advised those who might have come in contact with the visitors to self-quarantine.
Russia denies spreading disinformation
On Sunday, Russia denied all allegations that it is spreading false information on social media that the US started the coronavirus outbreak.
US officials said thousands of profiles on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were spreading the theory, adding that Russian-linked accounts were making the claims.
One of the theories circulating online in multiple languages is the allegation that the coronavirus is a US attempt to wage "economic war on China."
But Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told Russian news agency Tass: "This is a deliberately false story."
Iran: Virus fears deployed to 'discourage' voters
Iranian health ministry spokesperson Kianoush Jahanpour told state television on Sunday that the national death toll has risen to eight and that there were now 43 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the Islamic Republic.
The outbreak has centered on the city of Qom, 87 miles (140 km) south of Tehran. Iran's health minister acknowledged that travel from China brought the coronavirus to the country.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused enemy "propaganda" of trying to dissuade citizens from voting in Saturday's parliamentary elections by escalating the threat of the coronavirus, The Associated Press reported. A low voter turn-out could indicate Iranians' dissatisfaction with the country's clerical rulers.
Iran reported its first case of the virus two days before the national polls.
Italian towns in lockdown
Meanwhile, Italy has taken drastic measures to fight the coronavirus following the deaths of two citizens reported on Friday and Saturday.
The Italian government on Saturday announced "extraordinary measures" to prevent further spread of the virus.
The outbreak has led Italian authorities to place several towns on lockdown amid an increase in the number of cases to over 100 on Sunday.
The death of a 75-year-old woman near the small town of Codogno in Lombardy in northern Italy came just a day after a 78-year-old man succumbed to the virus in the neighboring region of Veneto, marking the country's first deaths.
The scale of the outbreak in Italy prompted Venice on Sunday to call off its famous Carnival celebrations.
The president of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, confirmed that the event, which had been due to run until Tuesday, had been suspended. He said two elderly people had been hospitalized in Venice with the virus.
China, meanwhile, reported another 97 deaths in its daily update on Sunday, taking its total to 2,442, plus 648 new infections. Nearly 80,000 infections have been reported worldwide.
Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday declared the outbreak the "biggest health emergency" to face the country since 1949.
mvb/mm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)