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South Korean virus cases jump again; 1st U.S. soldier infected

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The number of new virus infections in South Korea jumped again Wednesday and the U.S. military reported its first case among its soldiers based in the Asian country, with his case and many others connected to a southeastern city with an illness cluster.

South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 134 of the 169 new cases were confirmed in Daegu, where the government has been mobilizing public health tools to contain the virus. Another 19 cases were in neighboring North Gyeongsang province towns.

A U.S. military statement said the 23-year-old soldier was in self-quarantine at his off-base residence. He had been based in Camp Carroll in a town near Daegu, and visited both Carroll and nearby Camp Walker in recent days, according to the statement.

South Korean authorities and U.S. military health professionals were tracing his contacts to determine if other people may have been exposed.

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as deterrence against potential aggression from North Korea. United States Forces Korea previously said a widowed dependent had the virus, the first case involving a USFK-related individual. South Korea’s 600,000-member military has reported 18 cases and placed thousands of soldiers in quarantine as a precaution.

Col. Edward Ballanco, commander of the U.S. Army Garrison Daegu, said two bowling alleys at Camp Walker and Camp Carroll and a golf course at Camp Walker were closed after the soldier's case was confirmed. All restaurants at the bases, and also Camp Henry and Camp George in Daegu, could now provide only takeout meals with soldiers and family members prohibited from dining there, he said.

South Korea now has 1,146 confirmed infections of the virus and 11 fatalities from the COVID-19 illness it causes. The national government has been channeling medical personnel, protective suits and other supplies to Daegu, and there are concerns the local hospitals are being overwhelmed and fatigued doctors are becoming vulnerable to infections.

“This week will be critical in the fight to combat the (COVID-19) illness,” Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun said at meeting in Daegu City Hall to discuss quarantine efforts.

The number of cases were expected to rise as health workers finish testing hundreds of members of the Daegu branch of a church that has the country's biggest cluster of infections. The Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which mainstream Christian organizations describe as a cult, agreed to hand over a list of 200,000 members nationwide so screenings could widen.

China, by far, still has the most cases and deaths from the illness, though its numbers have slowed recently. Chinese officials Wednesday reported another 406 cases and 52 additional deaths, all of them in hard-hit Hubei province and all but 10 in the epicenter of the city of Wuhan.

China has recorded 2,715 deaths from COVID-19 and 78,064 confirmed cases of the virus on the mainland since the illness emerged in December.

China has put Wuhan and nearby cities under virtual quarantine for weeks, halting nearly all movement except for disease prevention, health care and supplying necessities. It has sent thousands of personnel to build and staff virus-dedicated hospitals in the epicenter region. In the capital Beijing and throughout the country, public events were canceled and factories, offices and schools closed.

Chinese banks have been ordered to disinfect old banknotes before reissuing them to the public. State broadcaster CCTV showed staff of a state-owned bank in Shanghai putting old banknotes under ultraviolet disinfection and putting them into a vault. The bank told CCTV money removed from high-risk sites such as hospitals and markets would not be returned to circulation. Other banknotes will be disinfected and sealed for at least seven days before being recirculated, the bank said.

While the response efforts to the disease have long focused on China and its neighbors, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier called for Americans to be prepared for the illness to spread there.

New outbreaks occurring in far-flung places were raising concerns about containing the illness and what will happen when it reaches new places.

“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen — and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the U.S. CDC told reporters Tuesday.

Uncertainly remained over how best to stem the spread of the illness. Italy had taken Europe’s most stringent preventative measures and yet became home to the biggest outbreak outside Asia. Experts in Japan acknowledged the mishandling of a virus-stricken cruise ship could have allowed the problem to magnify.

Several Middle Eastern countries reported jumps in new cases tied to travel from Iran, which has the highest in the Middle East with 95 cases and 15 deaths. Kuwait's KUNA news agency said 11 cases have been confirmed there as of Wednesday. Bahrain had 17.

Japan's case total of 860, third highest behind China and South Korea, includes 691 from the Diamond Princess. Four former passengers on the ship have died and more than a dozen people who were evacuated by their home countries later tested positive for the virus. Six government officials involved in the quarantine effort also became sick.

Overnight, 445 Filipinos who were mostly crewmembers on the ship flew home to begin a 14-day quarantine. Eighty Filipino crew members who tested positive for the virus stayed behind in hospitals in Japan.

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Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.

 

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