Coronavirus deaths in China top 2,500 as South Korea raises alert level to 'highest'

South Korea confirmed a total of 602 coronavirus cases and six deaths.

February 23, 2020, 11:21 PM

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea raised the alert level for the novel coronavirus Sunday as confirmed cases continue to rise at an alarming rate.

The news came as coronavirus deaths in China topped the 2,500 mark, following 150 new deaths on Sunday.

Chinese officials reported 409 new cases of the virus Sunday, pushing its national total past 77,000.

In South Korea, officials raised the national alert level for the virus to "highest."

"The COVID-19 incident has been confronted by a grave watershed," South Korean President Moon Jae-in said announcing the heightened response. "A few days from now is a very important moment," he said at a government meeting held to deal with the crisis.

This is the first time in 11 years that the country has raised virus alert levels to the highest level. The last time it happened was in response to influenza A (H1N1).

PHOTO: Electric screens about precautions against the illness COVID-19 are seen in a subway train in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.
Electric screens about precautions against the illness COVID-19 are seen in a subway train in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. South Korea's president said Sunday that he was putting his country on its highest alert for infectious diseases and ordered officials to take "unprecedented, powerful" steps to fight a soaring viral outbreak. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Ahn Young-joon/AP

There have been 169 additional cases and four confirmed deaths in South Korea in the last 24 hours, making a total of 602 confirmed cases and six dead. Eighteen were reported to have been treated fully and 8,057 people are suspected to have symptoms are going through tests, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

Among the newly confirmed cases were 18 people who had toured Israel and the West Bank on a group pilgrimage for a week earlier this month. It is not clear whether they were infected while in Israel.

Tel Aviv authorities on Sunday announced that all foreign nationals who have been to South Korea and Japan in the past 14 days will be banned from entering Israel.

At the center of South Korea's recent surge of outbreaks, which have increased more than twelve-fold in the past four days, is a religious sect called Shincheonji. More than half of all confirmed patients are followers of this movement who had attended weekly services and gatherings this month.

Health authorities have been screening all 9,000 worshipers known to have been there. The government on Sunday assigned ”special police forces” to track down about 600 remaining sect members who were not reachable.

ABC News’ Heejin Kang contributed to this report.

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