South Korea has reported its largest daily spike of 505 new coronavirus infections, outnumbering China for the first time as the government restricted exports of face masks amid a supply shortage.
China, where the central city of Wuhan is the epicentre of the country’s outbreak, recorded 450 new cases yesterday.
This brings South Korea’s total tally to 1,766, as officials warn that the number will continue to grow until around March 20 – two months after its first case.
Experts say South Korea’s numbers are spiking because the authorities are testing people by the thousands each day, with the aim of testing all 210,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus after the church’s branch in the south-eastern city of Daegu became a hotbed of infections.
There were 1,132 cases in Daegu as of yesterday, accounting for 64 per cent of the total. More than 600 of the patients are Shincheonji followers.
Now facing a lack of hospital beds and medical staff, Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin has appealed for doctors and nurses from all over the country to join the city’s fight against the coronavirus.
Vice-Minister of Health Kim Gang-lip said yesterday that 490 medical professionals from the private sector, including 24 doctors and 167 nurses, have already volunteered to serve in Daegu.
A team of 750 public doctors will also be dispatched soon – on top of 325 military doctors already sent to Daegu and the surrounding North Gyeongsang province, which has the second largest cluster of 345 cases.
Meanwhile, concern is growing over a shortage of face masks after people went online to sweep up weeks of supply.
With export restrictions for masks going into effect yesterday, the country would have a supply of nine million masks a day from 145 manufacturers. This accounts for 90 per cent of the daily output, leaving 10 per cent for export.
Yesterday, the government also rolled out plans to supply 500,000 masks a day to hospitals and another 3.5 million masks daily for public sale at a subsidised rate. But local reports said most people who queued from early morning at post offices and Nonghyup supermarkets went home empty-handed as the supplies were not ready yet.
Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki has said that pharmacies nationwide would be stocked with at least 1.2 million masks today.
Of the new coronavirus cases yesterday, four are from the South Korean military – two air force officers and two civilian staff. This raises the total number of confirmed cases in the military to 25, with about 820 people showing symptoms or having had direct contact with infected cases. Nearly 10,000 military service members are quarantined at their bases.
One more death was recorded yesterday – a 74-year-old man, a member of the Shincheonji church in Daegu who died in an ambulance while being transferred to a hospital after testing positive.