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South Korean president puts country on highest alert after coronavirus outbreak

Ambulances gather as a member of paramedic wearing protective gears walk in Daegu, South Korea. Picture by Kim Hyun-tai/Yonhap/AP

South Korea's president has put the country on its highest alert for infectious diseases and said officials should take "unprecedented, powerful" steps to fight the viral outbreak.

President Moon Jae-in said the Covid-19 outbreak has reached a "crucial watershed" and that the "next few days will be a very important critical moment".

He made the comments at the start of a government meeting as authorities reported 123 more cases on Sunday, raising the total to 556 with five deaths.

Earlier, the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said that 113 of the 123 new cases came from the fourth-largest city of Daegu and surrounding areas.

Centres chief Jeong Eun-kyeong told reporters that 309 of the country's 556 patients have been confirmed to have links to a branch of the local Shincheonji church in Daegu, which has become the biggest cluster of viral infections.

She said 534 of the 556 patients have been placed under isolation and that tests were under way on 6,039 other people.

Daegu's first case on February 18 was a church member with no recent record of overseas travel. Officials said she attended church services and visited other places before being diagnosed with the disease, but they still believe it unlikely that the woman set off the chain of infections.

Daegu mayor Kwon Yong-jin said there are concerns that the number of those infected in the city could see yet another massive increase because authorities were launching intensive examinations of church members with virus-related symptoms.

Central Daegu was mostly deserted with shelves at some supermarkets and stores empty.

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