(ATTN: ADDS more info on Daegu infection in paras 14-15)
SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) -- South Korean health authorities are on guard against potential cluster infections as an alarming new mass infection of the novel coronavirus was reported in Seoul on Monday despite a slowdown in the new cases in the southeastern city of Daegu, the epicenter of virus outbreak.
As of Monday, 80.2 percent of the COVID-19 cases in the country are classified as cluster infection cases, with another 19.8 percent of the cases either labeled as sporadic infections or under investigation, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
At least 64 people, including workers from a call center in southwestern Seoul, tested positive for the virus, marking the biggest COVID-19 infection cluster in the capital city and raising concerns of more cluster infections down the road.
"There was a new mass-infection case from the call center in Seoul's Guro Ward and other cluster cases in provincial governments," KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook said. "The total number of new confirmed cases is on a downturn but there are concerns over such mass infection cases."
A high-rise building 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.
Of particular concern is that the latest mass infection case has occurred in the capital, and of the confirmed cases, a large chunk of patients are residents in the city of Incheon, just west of Seoul, and surrounding Gyeonggi Province, where millions of people live.
The KCDC said confirmed cases traced to the call center could rise, considering the usually packed work environment, where temporary workers are outsourced to respond to customer complaints and inquiries.
At least 600 people are presumed to have worked at the location, the KCDC said.
"Efforts should be made by companies to adopt telecommuting and working at home and people to practice social distancing at work places," he said.
Social distancing refers to a series of tactics designed to keep people from gathering in large crowds to maintain distance, including working from home, canceling school and avoiding in-person meetings.
Related to the latest outbreak, 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 who work at call centers have tested positive for the virus since late last month, and that authorities have placed 230 employees in self-quarantine. The city said it had some 62 call centers employing 7,780 people, although that number may be higher because there are small-sized operations in the city. Centers with infected people have all been closed for disinfection.
"Judging by developments in Seoul, people linked call centers here could have been infected," a Daegu city official said.
Besides the Guro call center, only a few mass infection cases have been reported in Seoul. A total of 14 virus patients were linked to Eunpyeong St. Mary's Hospital in Eunpyeong Ward. Another 13 cases in Seoul came from an apartment building in Seongdong Ward.
Another cluster of infections was reported in Dongdaemun Ward, where a couple in their 60s and their daughter in her 30s, along with her four-week infant, all tested positive for the virus.
Also, a small cluster infections linked to a religious sect related to most cases in the country occurred in Daegu over the weekend.
Out of 140 residents at an apartment building in Daegu, 46 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The latest mass infection case came as the country's new confirmed virus cases are showing signs of slowing down.
The 131 new cases, which were detected Monday, brought the nation's total number of infections to 7,513, the KCD. Monday's additional cases were far below the daily increases of 500 or more last week and marked the slowest one-day rise in confirmed cases in two weeks.
Of the 131 new cases, which were detected on Monday, 92 are in Daegu and 10 are in North Gyeongsang, the KCDC said.
Daily new virus cases in Daegu, the country's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million, peaked at over 700 on Feb. 29, but have been on the wane falling to below 300 level on March 8 and 200 on March 9.
The total number of confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the two epicenters of the virus outbreak here, stood at 5,663 and 1,117, respectively, accounting for 90 percent of total infections here.
The spike in virus cases came as the country's health authorities conducted massive testing of some 210,000 followers of a religious sect in the city. About 63 percent of total infections in the county are traced to Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu.
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