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(LEAD) S. Korea unveils virus prevention guidelines for confined workplaces

National 13:56 March 12, 2020

(ATTN: RECASTS throughout with details; CHANGES headline)

SEOUL, March 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Thursday unveiled virus prevention guidelines for confined workplaces and public-use facilities to stem cluster infections of the novel coronavirus following a massive group transmission at a call center in Seoul.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it will distribute the guidelines to those who operate their businesses in enclosed spaces, including internet cafes, karaoke rooms and fitness centers, which are vulnerable to group transmission of COVID-19.

The guidelines call for business operators to set up a prevention system to better protect their workers and customers from the contagious disease.

Under the guidelines, business owners are recommended to designate managers dedicated to quarantine activities and set up an emergency contact list with local health authorities. They are also advised to conduct fever checks on employees twice a day.

A health worker disinfects an office room at a call center in Suwon, south of Seoul, on March 11, 2020. (Yonhap)

The KCDC also urged companies to actively adopt remote working and stagger commuting hours, while encouraging them to distance proximity at workplaces.

The guidelines come after a massive group transmission was reported at a call center in southwestern Seoul, where workers apparently worked at packed offices. So far, more than 100 COVID-19 cases have been founded to be linked to the call center.

"Managing business sites that are vulnerable to the new coronavirus infections has become an urgent task," said Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official who is in charge of quarantine work. "With the guidelines, business owners should set their prevention measures depending on their working conditions."

After the call center case rang warning bells about enclosed spaces' vulnerability to viral outbreaks, South Korean experts have called on the government to come up with toughened quarantine measures.

"In the Seoul metropolitan area, there are already quite a number of cases whose infection routes are unknown," said Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious medicine at Korea University Guro Hospital. "If they stay in confined space for a long time, it could lead to group transmission and the call center group transmission is an example of the worst scenario becoming a reality."

This file photo taken Feb. 24, 2020, shows an internet cafe, also known as a "PC Bang" in South Korea, in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Some municipal governments hinted that they may even consider shutting down such public-use facilities to prevent small cluster infections.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said Wednesday the city has recommended owners of karaoke rooms and internet cafes to suspend operations, while considering issuing administrative order for a temporary shutdown of such facilities.

Large companies in South Korea have toughened quarantine measures on their confined workplaces even before the government guidelines were released.

SK Telecom Co., South Korea's largest mobile carrier, said 1,500 workers at its call centers who applied for remote working will work from home starting Thursday. For those who have to work at offices, the company widened the distance between seats.

LG Electronics Inc. also allowed its call center workers to work at home. Some 800 workers for the company's six call centers nationwide.

Samsung Electronics Service Co., a maintenance service unit of Samsung Electronics Co., already reported virus-infected workers at its call center in Daegu, the epicenter of South Korea's virus outbreak, and has closed the facility since Feb. 27.

The company said the call center will reopen Friday, and only workers who tested negative for the virus will be allowed to come to work.

A thermal imaging camera is installed at a building in Seoul on March 11, 2020. (Yonhap)

Infectious disease experts said it is a positive that the government is coming up with the guidelines for confined workplaces but urged the authorities to first establish a system that can monitor whether companies' prevention measures are properly working.

"There should be a system that makes companies report the health conditions of their employees daily to health authorities," said Jung Ki-suck, a doctor at Hallym University Sacred Heart Hospital and former head of the KCDC. "Making recommendations will not work."

Doctors emphasized that the best way to prevent group transmission at confined workplaces begins with personal hygiene, because in reality, it is difficult to block people from having conversations.

"The best way to prevent the virus infection is to wear masks even at office rooms and wash hands frequently," said Uhm Joong-shik, a doctor at Gachon University Gil Medical Center in Incheon, just west of Seoul.

kdon@yna.co.kr
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