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SEOUL — North Korea has mobilized its military to distribute COVID drugs and deployed more than 10,000 health workers to track down potential patients as it battles a widespread coronavirus wave, state media KCNA said on Tuesday.

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The isolated country is grappling with its first recognized COVID-19 outbreak, which it confirmed last week, raising concerns of a major crisis due to a lack of vaccines and adequate medical infrastructure.

The state epidemic prevention headquarters reported 269,510 more people with fever symptoms, bringing the total to 1,483,060, while the death toll rose to 56 as of Monday night, KCNA said. It didn’t say how many people tested positive for COVID-19.

“A strong force” from the army medical corps was immediately dispatched to improve drug supplies in the capital Pyongyang, the epidemic’s hub, on orders from leader Kim Jong Un, KCNA reported.

The team’s mission aims to “defuse the public health crisis” in Pyongyang, it said.

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Some senior members of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Politburo visited pharmacies and drug administration offices to check supply and demand, KCNA said in another release, after Kim criticized the ineffective distribution of drugs.

“They called for stricter order in the storage and handling of medical supplies while maintaining the principle of prioritizing demand and people’s convenience in supplies,” KCNA said.

Search efforts have also intensified, with around 11,000 health officials, teachers and medical students taking part in an “intensive medical screening of all residents” across the country to locate and treat people with fevers.

Still, various sectors of the national economy keep up production and construction while taking thorough anti-virus measures, KCNA added. Kim had decreed that limited activities be allowed in each city and county.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned the virus could spread quickly in North Korea, which had no vaccination program and has refused international help.

South Korea on Monday offered working-level talks to send medical supplies, including vaccines, masks and testing kits, and technical cooperation, but said the north has not recognized its embassy.

The U.S. State Department said it is concerned about the outbreak’s potential impact on North Koreans and supports immunization assistance to the country.

“To that end, we support and strongly encourage the efforts of U.S. and international relief and public health organizations to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19 … and provide other forms of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable groups in the country,” a spokesman said .

The spokesman confirmed that US envoy to North Korea Sung Kim had a phone call with South Korea’s new nuclear negotiator Kim Gunn, without elaborating.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Richard Pullin)

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