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(4th LD) More than 90 infections linked to Seoul call center, numbers feared to rise

All News 14:43 March 11, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS details in paras 4, 9-14, 17, photo, minor edits)
By Lee Minji

SEOUL, March 11 (Yonhap) -- A total of 93 cases of coronavirus infection were found to be linked to a call center in southwestern Seoul, the capital's mayor said Wednesday, spawning concerns about potential mass transmission in the metropolitan area that is home to 25 million people.

"Based on a screening of 207 employees working at a call center on the 11th floor of the Korea Building, 93 cases have been confirmed. The figure includes family members of the call center employees," Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said in a press briefing.

A total of 553 call center employees who work on the seventh to ninth floors of the building in the Sindorim neighborhood are being screened, he said, adding that no additional cases have been found outside of the 11th floor.

Sindorim is one of the busiest neighborhoods in southwestern Seoul, with subway lines No. 1 and 2 that connect Seoul to nearby Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, as well as Gangnam in southern Seoul, passing through.

This file photo shows the exterior of a building in southwestern Seoul where COVID-19 infections occurred at a call center located on the 11th floor. (Yonhap)

Among the cases, Seoul accounted for the highest number of infections with 65 patients, followed by 15 in Incheon, west of Seoul, and 13 in Gyeonggi Province, according to Park.

The call center infection is so far the biggest COVID-19 infection cluster in Seoul, which is home to 10 million people. When including the nearby Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, the case poses a potential risk to the wider metropolitan area's population of 25 million.

"Seoul city will make sure to respond in a certain and meticulous manner, so that the call center group transmission will not develop into the cases seen in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province," Park said, referring to the southeastern regions that have been pounded by infections related to the minor religious sect Shincheonji.

Commercial and office spaces on the first to 12th floors of the building, which include a wedding hall and a Starbucks franchise, have been shut down, while the city government is closely monitoring residents who live on the 13th to 19th floors of the building, he said.

▲People wearing masks are seen at Sindorim subway station in southwestern Seoul on March 11, 2020. (Yonhap)

The health ministry, meanwhile, said that five of the 207 workers were found to be followers of Shincheonji, which is associated with more than 60 percent of South Korea's total infections.

All five have so far tested negative, but the government plans to look into the case for additional infections. The city government also said it will probe for any possible links to the religious sect.

Group transmissions, which account for 80 percent of all infections reported in South Korea, are deemed to be one of the biggest risks in the country's fight against the new coronavirus.

While the government has closed down schools and urged companies to use flexible working hours and remote working, infections have occurred in minor clusters in hospitals, religious services and even Zumba classes.

On Wednesday, the government again urged companies to distance proximity at workplaces and encourage employees to work from home after call center workers were found to have worked in a packed office, without wearing masks.

The Seoul city government also said it plans to monitor around 400 call centers in the capital and asked owners of karaokes, clubs and "PC bangs," or internet cafes, to suspend their business, if possible.

According to government figures from midnight Tuesday, South Korea has reported 7,755 infections since its first confirmed case on Jan. 20.

Cases in Seoul sharply jumped to 193, up 52 from the previous day, according to the data by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Separate data by the city government showed there were 205 cases in Seoul as of 10 a.m.

Health officials examine residents at a virus screening center set up on the first floor of a building in southwestern Seoul on March 11, 2020. (Yonhap)



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