A man wearing a face mask walks past a branch of the Shincheonji Church, which is temporarily closed by the government to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – South Korea recorded 586 new cases of the coronavirus on Sunday, bringing the nationwide total to 3,786, according to the Korea Center of Disease Control and Prevention.

The number was a surprise fall from the day prior – Saturday had seen 813 new cases – but still the second-highest number of new cases on record. The prior Sunday had also seen a slight drop, day-on-day, but Monday’s numbers subsequently rebounded.

As of Sunday, the KCDC was testing over 33,000 suspected cases. So far, 20 deaths have been recorded from the virus.

Although the disease is prevalent nationwide, the vast majority of new cases continue to register in the country’s southeast.

Of Sunday’s 586 new cases, 469 were found to be in the southeastern city of Daegu, with another 67 in its surrounding province, according to the CDC. Overall, the area contains 87% of Korea’s Covid-19 cases, Yonhap news agency calculated.

South Korean confirmed covid-19 cases

Jan 20: 1st case

Wed Feb. 19: Total 51 cases

Thurs Feb. 20: New cases: 53. Total 104

Friday Feb. 21: New cases: 100. Total 204

Saturday Feb. 22: New cases: 229. Total 433

Sunday Feb. 23: New cases: 169. Total 602

Monday Feb. 24:  New cases: 231. Total 833

Tuesday Feb. 25: New cases: 144. Total: 977

Wednesday Feb. 26: New cases: 284. Total: 1261

Thursday Feb 27: New cases: 505. Total: 1,766

Friday: Feb 28: New cases: 571.Total: 2,337

Saturday 29 Feb:  New cases: 813. Total: 3,150

Sunday 1 March: New cases 586. Total: 3,736

Data: Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention

‘Korea’s Wuhan’

“Contrary to earlier concerns, the speed of Covid-19 spreading to other parts of the country beyond Daegu has been reduced,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said in a televised briefing. Park said the next one to two weeks would be the “watershed” for the nation’s containment efforts.

On Sunday, the United States warned its citizens not to travel to Daegu. The city is where the controversial Shincheonji Church, the sect that is the epicenter of the national crisis, has its headquarters. Major public anger has been focused on the church – which many consider a cult – for its secretive modus operandi and its packed services, which some allege are mask-free.

Confirmed cases of Covid-19 have surged since Wednesday, when authorities began testing 211,000 members of the Christian sect. On Sunday, in an interview with CNN, a church director confirmed that the sect had members in Wuhan, China. But he denied that members were told not to wear masks during services – a major claim against the group. He said the church was cooperating with authorities and was being victimized.

The first batch of tests of church members showed an 82% infection rate, according to Yonhap news agency, quoting a church statement.

Authorities have prioritized testing of members showing symptoms. However, if the percentage were to hold true across the entire congregation, then Korea could potentially have some 170,000 Covid-19 cases.  

That worst-case scenario would dwarf even China’s number of cases, currently hovering just under 80,000.

Meanwhile, in North Korea, official news media stated that some 7,000 citizens are under observation for the coronavirus. So far, however, Pyongyang has not reported a single death.