The country has reported a sharp rise in infections, pushing the total number of confirmed cases to 104.

Women wear masks as a preventive measure against the novel coronavirus at a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea on February 20, 2020.
Women wear masks as a preventive measure against the novel coronavirus at a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea on February 20, 2020. (Reuters)

South Korea reported its first death from a new virus on Thursday, while the mayor of a southeastern city urged his 2.5 million people to refrain from going outside as viral infections, linked to a church congregation, spiked.

The death of a previously confirmed patient in South Korea marked the world’s ninth virus fatality outside mainland China. Other deaths have occurred in Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and France.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the South Korean man, believed to be around 63 years old, died at a hospital on Wednesday and posthumously tested positive for the virus.

It said authorities were investigating the exact cause of his death.

The centre confirmed 22 additional cases of the virus, raising the total in South Korea to 104.

Cluster in Daegu

Earlier on Thursday, the mayor of Daegu urged its 2.5 million people to stay home and wear masks even indoors if possible after the southeastern city and its nearby towns reported 35 additional cases of infection with the new coronavirus. 

The 35 cases didn't include the additional 22 that were reported later Thursday.

On Wednesday morning, Daegu confirmed 13 cases and 11 of them either went to the same church with the woman patient or contacted her at a hospital, according to the disease control centre.

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which claims it has about 200,000 followers in the country, said it has closed all of its 74 churches around the nation and told followers to instead watch its online worship services on YouTube.

It said in a statement that health officials were disinfecting its church in Daegu, which the woman patient visited, while tracing her contacts. That Daegu church has about 8,000 followers.

According to the church statement, church officials had been advising followers since late January to stay at home if they had recently travelled overseas or were experiencing even mild cold-like symptoms. 

But the 31st patient assumed she had caught a common cold and kept coming to her Daegu church because she didn’t travel overseas, church officials said.

China toll surpasses 2,100

Fatalities in China hit 2,118 as 114 more people died, but health officials reported the lowest number of new cases in nearly a month, including in hardest-hit Hubei province.

More than 74,000 people have been infected by the new coronavirus in China, and hundreds more in over 25 countries.

"Results show that our control efforts are working," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a special meeting on the virus with Southeast Asian counterparts in Laos, citing the latest data.

Wang said the situation was "significantly improving" in Hubei and Wuhan, but an official in a central government team dealing with the epidemic said it was still "very severe".

Although more than 600 new infections were reported in Hubei's capital Wuhan, it was the lowest daily tally since late January and well down from the 1,749 new cases the day before.

The national figure has now fallen for three straight days.

Chinese authorities placed the city of 11 million under quarantine on January 23 and quickly locked down the rest of the province in the days that followed.

Wuhan authorities this week carried out a three-day, door-to-door check on residents, with the local Communist Party chief warning that officials would be "held accountable" if any infections were missed.

Cities far from the epicentre have limited the number of people who can leave their homes for groceries, while rural villages have sealed off access to outsiders.

Richard Brennan, a World Health Organization official, said in Cairo that China was making "tremendous progress" and "trends are very encouraging, but we are not at a turning point yet".

Japan's toll rose to three as a man and a woman in their 80s who had been aboard a quarantined cruise ship died, while fears there mounted about other passengers who disembarked the Diamond Princess after testing negative.

A second group of about 600 Japanese and foreign passengers from the Diamond Princess was set to disembark on Thursday, after the first group was released from quarantine a day earlier. The ship was carrying about 3,700 people when quarantined on February 3.

Hundreds of people who left the ship on Wednesday were placed in quarantine again in their home countries, with Australia and Hong Kong putting their returned citizens in supervised isolation for another two weeks.

Passengers arriving in Hong Kong were taken straight into quarantine at a new public housing estate. A contingent of Australian evacuees was placed in quarantine at an old mining camp outside Darwin in the country's far north.

Iran health officials warn against holding public gatherings

Iranian health officials urged all religious gatherings to be suspended in Qom, news agency ISNA said on Thursday, after two more people tested positive for the coronavirus in the holy city, where two died of it this week.

In all, three more people had tested positive for the virus, an Iranian health ministry spokesman said.

"Two people have tested positive for Covid-19 in Qom and one person in Arak, bringing the total of confirmed cases to five in Iran," spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said in a tweet.

Jahanpur said all patients were Iranian and the person in the central city of Arak was a doctor from Qom, the semi-official news agency ISNA reported.

Jahanpur said health officials had called for the suspension of all religious gatherings in Qom, a Shia Muslim holy city about 120 km (75 miles) south of the capital Tehran, according to ISNA.

Two Iranians died in hospital after testing positive in Qom, the head of the city's University of Medical Sciences said on Wednesday.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies