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South Korea on high alert as leader calls for 'unprecedented' steps amid virus

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

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s president has put the country on its highest alert for infectious diseases and says officials should take “unprecedented, powerful” steps to fight a viral outbreak. President Moon Jae-in says the 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. 

Iran raised its death toll from the virus to eight people — the highest toll outside of China. The health ministry says there are now 43 confirmed cases in Iran.

Globally, nearly 78,000 people have been infected in 29 countries, and more than 2,300 have died.  

South Korea's president declared the highest disease alert. 

The country reported there were 556 confirmed cases of the virus, mostly linked to a church and a hospital. South Korea's Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip on Saturday said the outbreak had entered a serious new phase but expressed cautious optimism that it can be contained to the region surrounding Daegu, where the first case was reported on Tuesday. 

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South Korea reported that the viral infections are mostly linked to a church and a hospital in and around the fourth-largest city, where health workers scrambled to screen more than 9,000 worshipers. 

South Korea's third death from the virus was a man in his 40s who was found dead at home and posthumously tested positive.

South Korea’s central government earlier this week declared the city of Daegu as a special management zone in recognition of how the illness is spreading there. The city's mayor has urged the city’s 2.5 million people to stay home and wear masks even indoors if possible.

South Korean capital Seoul is even banning rallies in major downtown areas in efforts to fight the viral outbreak.

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Mainland China reported 648 new infections for a total of 76,936.

The new figures in China come as strict quarantine measures and travel bans continue to contain the disease that emerged there in December and has since spread worldwide.

Containment of the illness has been a struggle far from the epicenter in central China, as the major South Korean city urged residents to stay indoors.

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Credit: AP
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, speaks during a meeting at a government complex in downtown Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. South Korea's president has put the country on its highest alert for infectious diseases and says officials should take "unprecedented, powerful" steps to fight a viral outbreak. (Lee Jin-wook/Yonhap via AP)