South Korean health officials wearing protective suits spray disinfectant in front of the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southeastern city of Daegu. Photo: AFP/Daegu Metropolitan City Namgu

Covid-19 took turns for the worse on Thursday in two of China’s nearest neighbors, South Korea – where a single well attended church accounted for a slew of new victims of the coronavirus –and Japan, where the cruise ship Diamond Princess continued to hog the headlines.

In South Korea the stunning Oscar successes of local film “Parasite” had briefly knocked coronavirus off front pages.

But the outbreak was back with a vengeance. By late Thursday, 53 new cases of the virus were reported, more than doubling the country’s total to 104; on Wednesday the total had been just 51. The country also reported its first death from the virus, a 63-year-old who had been bed-ridden for 20 days.

The sudden spike in cases came largely in the southeastern city of Daegu, where 51 out of the day’s 53 new cases originated.

‘Super carrier’

According to reports early in the day, of the cases in Daegu, 23 stemmed from one un-named woman, a worshipper at a church in the industrial city that lies some 150 miles (233 km) southeast of Seoul, with a population of 2.3 million.

Due to the number of people she allegedly infected, she has been labeled a “super carrier.”

The 61-year-old woman first developed a fever on February 10, but reportedly twice refused to be tested for the coronavirus on the grounds that she had not recently traveled abroad, and attended at least four services before being diagnosed, AFP reported

The Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or KCDCP called for persons who had visited the church to stay indoors and report to health authorities if they show symptoms, Yonhap news agency reported.

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu has been temporarily closed, with all services now being held online. According to Daegu-based media cited by Yonhap news agency, some 1,000 worshippers regularly attend services there.

“We are deeply sorry that because of one of our members, who thought of her condition as a cold because she had not travelled abroad, led to many in our church being infected and thereby caused concern to the local community,” the church said in a statement carried by AFP.

The KDCDP called for persons who had visited the church to stay indoors and report to health authorities if they show symptoms, Yonhap reported.

Amid the surge in cases, Daegu has closed kindergartens and libraries, and schools in the city may extend their winter vacation. The national government is deploying some 23 doctors and expanding virus protection facilities there; the city government is urging citizens to stay home, Yonhap reported.

Online, some netizens called for the entire city to be blockaded.

Churches are emerging as key vectors for the virus. Similar multiple infections have been reported from two churches in Singapore.

Prior to Thursday’s spike, South Korea seemed to have the situation under control. As of early Thursday, health authorities had screened 12,161 people since January 3, with 10,446 testing negative and 16 patients having been discharged from quarantine after making full recoveries, Yonhap reported.


Thing also took a turn for the worse in neighboring Japan

It was reported Thursday that two elderly patients with coronavirus from the cruise ship Diamond Princess had died, taking the total death toll nationwide to three. The two former passengers, according to AFP, were a man and a woman in their 80s – the first fatalities from those aboard the quarantined cruise ship.

The virus-wracked vessel, docked at Yokohama, is being evacuated in a days-long process by those passengers who have tested negative and undergone a 14-day quarantine period abroad.

On Wednesday, 443 passengers disembarked from the ship after testing negative and not showing symptoms for 14 days, AFP reported. Evacuations continued Thursday, in a process expected to stretch into the weekend.

Some 3,700 persons were aboard the ship, which has been in quarantine since docking in Yokohama on February 5, with 621 cases confirmed aboard, making it the biggest single vector of the virus.

Tokyo under fire

On Thursday, Tokyo authorities returned fire after taking flak on Tuesday from a Japanese expert Kentaro Iwata, a specialist in infectious diseases at Kobe University who via YouTube videos added an expert’s persuasiveness and detail to passenger complaints reported week before last by Asia Times.

“The cruise ship was completely inadequate in terms of the infection control,” Iwata said in the clips, according to Kyoto news agency. Iwata, who had inspected the situation aboard on Tuesday, indicated there was no distinction between infection zones and infection-free zones, calling the situation “chaotic.”

Iwata, who had previously been in Africa amid the ebola outbreak, in China during the SARS outbreak and also in other countries suffering cholera epidemics, said he was most scared aboard the Diamond Princess.

After his Tuesday visit, Iwata quarantined himself for 14 days, AFP reported.

On Thursday, Japanese health authorities responded, stressing that risky and safe areas were strictly divided and there was a station installed for safely removing contaminated gear.

“We’ve been doing our best in the circumstances,” Health Minister Katsunobu Kato  told lawmakers on Thursday morning, according  to AFP.

“I want you to understand that not only our officials at the health ministry but also Self-Defense Forces officials and medical officials are working desperately hard,” he added.

The government also released a document from the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), which pointed to “clear evidence that substantial transmission of Covid-19 had been occurring prior to implementation of quarantine on Diamond Princess.”

“Quarantine intervention was effective in reducing transmission among passengers,” the report concluded.

Iwata has removed his two videos and tweeted, “I removed my YouTube clip myself since there is no need for further discussing this.”

Beyond the ship, Japan has registered 84 cases, with total deaths now standing at three.