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(5th LD) Seoul call center emerges as city's biggest infection cluster, numbers feared to rise

All News 23:29 March 10, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS details in paras 3, 7-8, 18-21)
By Lee Minji

SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) -- With at least 50 cases, a call center in southwestern Seoul emerged as the biggest COVID-19 infection cluster here Tuesday, triggering concerns over potential mass transmission in the metropolitan area that is home to 25 million, or nearly half of the country's population.

A high-rise in the neighborhood of Sindorim was closed and disinfected late Monday after workers at a call center on its 11th floor were confirmed as patients, according to Guro Ward, which oversees Sindorim.

In a meeting with provincial officials, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon initially said 64 cases occurred from the outbreak, although numbers released later in the day by local governments estimated around 80 infections.

Wards in Seoul reported close to 60 confirmed cases in their areas. Incheon and Gyeonggi Province each confirmed more than 10 cases.

The KCDC, which only officially confirmed 50 cases, said all diagnosed employees worked on the 11th floor and did not wear masks.

But numbers are feared to further soar, considering the usually packed work environment at call centers, where temporary workers are outsourced to respond to customer complaints and inquiries.

Call center employees usually have to work in narrow booths and in the case of those working for financial firms, have to work in designated areas, as they handle personal information.

Health authorities said they plan to also check 550 other employees at the call center who worked on the seventh to ninth floors of the same building, with Seoul and other local governments all scrambling to screen people who have come in contact with workers as soon as possible while asking those at most at risk to isolate themselves.

Incheon said that it has identified some 60 people with ties to the call center, with Uijeongbu in Gyeonggi, just north of Seoul, reporting its first infection case from a person who works at the Guro center. Gyeonggi has determined that 45 people came into contact with call center workers.

People who work at a building in southwestern Seoul where infections occurred stand in a line to be checked for the new coronavirus on March 10, 2020. (Yonhap)

The infection is so far the biggest group infection that has occurred in the Seoul metropolitan area, raising worries of a widespread outbreak in the capital in addition to the mass infections in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province in the southeast of the country.

"All 207 workers have been quarantined and inspections are taking place. This is the biggest infection reported in Seoul so far, and we are looking at this in a serious and grave manner and striving to prevent additional cases," Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said in a press briefing.

The city government said it has launched an emergency taskforce of 30 researchers to look into the outbreak and has urged residents in the building, which has 19 floors and six basement levels, to isolate themselves.

In addition to the offices and commercial facilities in floors one to 12, 140 residential flats are located on the top seven floors of the building in Sindorim, one of the busiest areas in southwestern Seoul, where subway lines No. 1 and 2 pass through.

A virus screening center has been set up on the ground floor of the building for residents and employees to be screened for the new coronavirus, the city said.

The latest cluster of infections was identified at the call center operated by Metanet Mplatform, whose clients include the local affiliate of global insurance group Chubb.

This photo taken on March 10, 2020, shows a building in southwestern Seoul where infections occurred at a call center located on the 11th floor. (Yonhap)

The outbreak, the first to occur in a call center, raised worries about similar office environments in which employees have to work in close proximity to each other and cannot afford to take part in the government's social distancing campaign.

The Seoul mayor said the city plans to monitor similar work environments and advise owners of businesses, such as karaoke rooms or dance clubs, to suspend operations for the time being.

Reflecting infection concerns in certain workplaces, regional governments across the country are rushing to check all insurance and telecom call centers within their jurisdictions to see if they are at risk of spreading infection.

Cities and provinces that have call centers said they stepped up disinfection and are asking companies to allow employees to work from home instead of reporting to packed offices.

Incheon said it had 18 calls centers. Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul, confirmed 64.

Daegu reported that seven people working at call centers in the city have tested positive for the virus and that authorities have placed 230 employees of the facility in self-quarantine. The city said it has some 62 call centers employing 7,780 people, with the workplaces employing up to 400 people.

Around 80 percent of the more than 7,000 infections reported in South Korea are attributed to group transmissions, according to KCDC data.

While the minor religious sect of Shincheonji is associated with more than 60 percent of all infections, infections have also occurred in minor clusters in hospitals, religious services and even Zumba classes.

In Seoul, 14 infections occurred at the Eunpyeong St. Mary's Hospital, a general hospital in northwestern Seoul, and 13 in a residential complex in the Seongdong Ward as of Monday, according to the KCDC.

South Korea has reported 7,513 infections since its first confirmed case on Jan. 20.

A city official disinfects Guro subway station in southwestern Seoul on March 10, 2020, after a patient who worked at a nearby building was found to have visited the station. (Yonhap)

mlee@yna.co.kr
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