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(4th LD) Alarmed by cluster of 15 new virus cases, S. Korea struggles to contain further spread

All News 13:57 February 19, 2020

(ATTN: CHANGES headline; UPDATES with more details in paras 2-3, 11, last para; CHANGES photos)

SEOUL, Feb. 19 (Yonhap) -- South Korea confirmed 15 more cases of the novel coronavirus Wednesday, bringing the total number of infections here to 46, amid growing concerns that the respiratory illness is spreading across the country despite tighter quarantine measures.

Health authorities said there is a growing risk of COVID-19 spreading in the community, and they are now responding to the latest cases without links to existing spreading in South Korea, China or other countries.

The spike in infections is a grave development, but it is still too early to say that the situation is turning into a full-blown outbreak, authorities said, vowing to go all-out to prevent further spreading.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), 13 of the new patients live in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and in the adjacent North Gyeongsang region.

The country's 31st patient, probably a coronavirus "super spreader," is believed to have infected at least 11 others. The woman, a Daegu resident, started to complain of a fever on Feb. 10 and was confirmed infected on Tuesday.

Staff at Hanyang University Hospital in Seoul post a notice saying that the emergency center is temporarily closed on Feb. 19, 2020, to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Yonhap)

A preliminary epidemiological investigation shows that the potential super spreader attended the same church service as 10 of the newly confirmed patients and had person-to-person contact with one person at a Daegu hospital.

The 61-year-old South Korean woman also visited Seoul late last month and went about her everyday life, using public transportation among other things.

What constitutes a super spreader is not clearly defined, but people can be labeled such if they transmit the disease to more than 10 others.

The health authorities said that the 11-year-old daughter of the country's 20th patient, who was confirmed to be infected on Feb. 5, also tested positive for the illness, becoming the country's first child to be infected with COVID-19. A 77-year-old man has also been diagnosed with the virus, according to the KCDC. He has not traveled abroad.

All newly infected people have been placed in quarantine and are undergoing treatment.

So far, at least four people, including the 77-year-old man, have tested positive for the virus despite having no links to known clusters of COVID-19.

The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 1,030 as of early Wednesday, up from 818 the day before, the KCDC said in a release. South Korea has screened 10,411 people for COVID-19 since Jan. 3, with 9,335 testing negative and 16 people having been discharged from quarantine after making full recoveries.

The KCDC said Tuesday that the country is entering a "new phase" with some confirmed cases not linked to existing spreads, which means that those patients are judged to have contracted the COVID-19 virus without traveling abroad or coming into contact with other infected patients.

The public health agency admitted that it is not clear how some recent patients contracted the virus.

KCDC director Jung Eun-kyeong said in a press conference on Tuesday that the country needs to tighten quarantine controls over arrivals from abroad and self-quarantine rules, while coming up with countermeasures to prevent community spread, she said.

Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo told the National Assembly earlier that health authorities have been preparing for the possibility of community spread.

"The seeming lull in new confirmed cases last week can be seen as a transition period leading to a 'second peak' stage," the minister said.

The health authorities said that the number of virus-screening stations across the country stands at 464, with efforts under way to make 5,000 coronavirus tests available per day, enabling infected people to be better identified so they cannot spread the virus to others.

A Daegu city worker disinfects a church in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Feb. 19, 2020. The country's 31st patient attends the church, with authorities believing 10 people were infected at the site. (Yonhap)

yonngong@yna.co.kr
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