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Coronavirus Live Updates: South Korea’s Leader Raises Alert Level to Maximum

President Moon Jae-in on Sunday put South Korea on the highest possible alert in its fight against the coronavirus, a move that empowers the government to lock down cities and take other sweeping measures to contain the outbreak.

“The coming few days will be a critical time for us,” he said at an emergency meeting of government officials to discuss the outbreak, which in just days has spiraled to 602 confirmed infections and five deaths. “The central government, local governments, health officials and medical personnel and the entire people must wage an all-out, concerted response to the problem.”

By raising the alert to Level 4, or “serious,” Mr. Moon authorized the government to take steps like barring visitors from specific countries and restricting public transportation, as well as locking down cities, as China has done.

Many of South Korea’s coronavirus cases are in the southeastern city of Daegu, which has essentially been placed under a state of emergency, though people are still free to enter and leave the city.

More than half of the people confirmed to have been infected are either members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect with a strong presence in Daegu, or their relatives or other contacts.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun had urged people on Saturday to comply with a ban on large protests in Seoul, the capital, where large political demonstrations are commonplace. But thousands of Christian activists defied the ban that day, gathering for their weekly protest against Mr. Moon, whom they accuse of coddling North Korea and mismanaging the economy.

The spike of cases in South Korea, along with rising numbers in Iran and Italy, has added to fears that the window to avert a global pandemic is narrowing. The World Health Organization has warned African leaders of the urgent need to prepare for the virus; it identified 13 African countries as priorities because of their direct links to China, which accounts for the vast majority of confirmed infections and deaths.

On Sunday, China raised its official numbers to 76,936 cases and 2,442 deaths.

Iran announced that it would close schools, universities and cultural centers across 14 provinces starting Sunday in an effort to curb the coronavirus, which has killed at least eight people in the country, state television said.

Although the origin of the outbreak in Iran is unclear, the Fars news agency on Sunday quoted the country’s health minister as saying that Chinese carriers of the virus were a source of the outbreak in Iran.

Just days ago, Iran said it was untouched by the virus, and the sudden increase in cases has raised concerns that it may be experiencing a significant outbreak. Iran’s health ministry said Saturday that 43 people had tested positive, with eight deaths, state-run Press TV reported.

Experts have said that based on the number of dead, the total number of cases is probably much higher, as Covid-19 appears to kill about one out of 50 people infected.

Eight of the 10 new cases were in the city of Qom, Press TV reported, citing a health ministry spokesman, Kianush Jahanpour. Qom has been the epicenter of the outbreak in Iran, and mosques and schools were closed there on Thursday.

  • Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

Mehr, an Iranian news agency, reported that the government had begun mass distribution of masks in cities affected by the outbreak.

The closures of schools, universities and cultural centers will last a week. It covers Qom, the capital of Tehran, and a dozen more provinces.

The authorities have also said that concerts and cultural events would be canceled for a week and movie theaters closed, while sports competitions will be held without spectators, state television reported.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Italy has risen by 89, officials said on Sunday, bringing the country’s total to 132.

Ten towns in the Lombardy region have been placed on lockdown, a decision affecting more than 50,000 people, after 88 coronavirus infections emerged there. And as new cases arose in other cities, Italy’s cabinet passed emergency measures late Saturday night that apply throughout the country.

Those national guidelines oblige local officials to “take all appropriate containment measures” if someone tests positive for the virus. Quarantine measures will be applied to anyone who has close contact with someone who has contracted the virus, and areas where positive cases are confirmed will be placed on lockdown.

“We are trying to contain a phenomenon, but it’s not a pandemic,” Giulio Gallera, the councilor responsible for health in Lombardy, said in a news conference on Saturday.

The lockdown in that region, announced late Friday, has closed schools, businesses, and bus and train stations. Officials have banned all public events, including sporting activities and religious ceremonies. Other Lombardy towns not affected by the lockdown have decided on their own restrictive measures.

Soccer matches on Sunday were canceled in Lombardy and Veneto, of which Venice is the capital. Officials also announced two cases in Venice for the first time, as the number of cases in Veneto rose to 25.

Two trade fairs scheduled for this month in Milan were postponed, and the mayor of Milan on Sunday asked that schools in the city be closed for a week.

Of the country’s coronavirus patients, 26 are in intensive care and two people have died, including a 77-year-old woman and a 78-year-old man, officials said.

A third person connected with the Diamond Princess cruise ship at the center of a coronavirus outbreak has died of pneumonia, according to Japan’s health ministry. A Japanese man in his 80s, who was taken off the ship to a hospital on Feb. 5, died on Sunday.

At the request of the man’s family, the ministry did not specify whether he had tested positive for the coronavirus or whether he had been a passenger on the ship.

The ministry said on Sunday that an additional 55 crew members and two passengers had tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total number of confirmed cases associated with the ship to 634.

Fifty of the new confirmed cases currently showed no symptoms, the ministry said. It did not indicate whether those who had tested positive were being quarantined on board the ship or had been taken to hospitals.

The Diamond Princess was subject to a government-mandated quarantine for two weeks in Yokohama, Japan. The government’s handling of the outbreak on the ship — the largest concentration of cases outside China — has been the subject of stinging criticism.

Others who worked on the ship will return to work but will be tested for infection, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said on Saturday, adding that 41 officials would be tested for now.

The State Department raised its travel advisories for Japan and South Korea on Saturday to Level 2, the second-lowest out of four grades, recommending that travelers “exercise increased caution” due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The advisories said that while many Covid-19 cases have been associated with travel to and from mainland China, or contact with someone who had recently been there, South Korea and Japan were now reporting “sustained community spread.” That means it is not known how or where people became infected, and the spread is ongoing, the advisories said.

In Japan, health officials are investigating clusters of cases that have taken on more urgency now that hundreds of passengers have been released from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had the largest concentration of the coronavirus outside mainland China. Cases in South Korea surged to 556 on Sunday, with four deaths.

Japanese officials said Saturday that 23 of the Diamond Princess passengers had mistakenly been cleared without a recent valid test. Those passengers have since been tested and posed “no risk of infection,” the Japanese Health Ministry said.

Since early February, thousands of people returning to the United States from mainland China have been asked to isolate themselves at home for 14 days. Preventing the spread of infectious disease is the essence of public health work, but the scale of efforts by state and local health departments across the country to contain any potential spread of the coronavirus has rarely been seen, experts said.

Local health officials check in daily by email, phone or text. They arrange tests for people who come down with symptoms, along with groceries and isolated housing, in some cases. There is no centralized tally in the United States of people being monitored or asked to remain in isolation, and they are scattered across the nation’s nearly 3,000 local health jurisdictions.

People arriving from mainland China are added each day, while those who have completed 14-day “self-quarantine” periods are released from oversight. In California alone, the department of public health has been monitoring more than 6,700 returning travelers from China. Health officials in Washington State have tracked about 800, and officials in Illinois more than 200.

Even as the first of 34 confirmed coronavirus patients in the United States have recovered in recent days, health officials say they are preparing for what some fear could still be a much wider outbreak.

So far, officials say, the containment effort has been largely orderly. The only known transmission of the virus in the United States has involved people in the same household. But no matter how effective health workers are in monitoring their charges, “there will always be some leakage,’’ said John Wiesman, the secretary of health in Washington State.

“There is no way, with something this large, that you can make it seal-proof,’’ Dr. Wiesman said. While enforcing total compliance with isolation orders may not be possible, he said, “We have to try for 80 to 85 percent, and hopefully that will work.’’

State Department officials say that thousands of Russia-linked social media accounts are spreading disinformation about the coronavirus, including a conspiracy theory that the United States is behind the Covid-19 outbreak.

American monitors identified the campaign in mid-January. Agence-France Presse first reported on the assessment on Saturday.

“Russia’s intent is to sow discord and undermine U.S. institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns,” said Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia.

“By spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian malign actors are once again choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response.”

The effort was described as being carried out by several thousand Russia-linked accounts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, which post similar messages at similar times in English, Spanish, French, German and Italian.

Fringe theories of uncertain origin have accused China of engineering the virus, including suggestions that it is an escaped bioweapon.

Misinformation about the virus — whether shared purposefully or unwittingly — is so rife that the World Health Organization has called it an “infodemic.” The W.H.O. has been working with big tech companies to try to quell the flood of rumors and falsehoods.

At least one executive at a major Chinese company has been questioned by local officials in Beijing about the company’s decision to resume operations after the extended Lunar New Year holiday, in light of the news that one of its employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The officials’ questioning of the leadership at Dangdang, an e-commerce giant, was the latest in a series of mixed messages from the authorities about their plans to restart China’s economy while maintaining stringent measures to stop the virus’s spread. It could make other companies hesitant to bring employees back to work.

Many companies across China have restarted operations, but only on a limited scale and with few employees, because the authorities have maintained strict restrictions on people’s movement. In recent days, officials have urged companies and factories to move more quickly, citing the toll that the epidemic has taken on the economy.

Dangdang resumed operations on Feb. 10. The Dangdang.com employee ran a fever on Tuesday, and was diagnosed with the coronavirus the next day.

On Saturday, Zhang Yanlin, the deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Development and Reform, said at a news conference that city officials had interviewed the company’s leadership about its prevention policies, asking that any shortcomings be identified.

The government’s measures have prompted some pushback from business leaders, who in recent days have suggested that the control measures have been too stringent and choked economic growth.

Reporting was contributed by Choe Sang-Hun, Elisabetta Povoledo, Austin Ramzy, Motoko Rich, Makiko Inoue, Derrick Bryson Taylor, Tess Felder, Amy Harmon, Farah Stockman, Edward Wong and Vivian Wang.

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