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(5th LD) Infection cases linked to Itaewon clubs rise to 94

National 20:37 May 11, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with Seoul city's data in headline, paras 1-4, last para)

SEOUL, May 11 (Yonhap) -- The number of new coronavirus infections connected to bars and clubs in Seoul's popular nightlife district of Itaewon climbed to 94 on Monday, health authorities and local governments said amid growing concerns over a high risk of community spread.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) announced that 86 cases, including 63 club visitors and 23 family members and friends who came in contact with the clubbers, were confirmed as of noon on Monday.

Later in the day, the Seoul city government reported eight more cases to take the total infections to 94.

By region, Seoul has reported 59 confirmed cases, with 21 in Gyeonggi Province, seven in Incheon, five in North Chungcheong Province and one each in Busan and Jeju Island.

The new cluster infections underline the challenge of controlling infections after the country started easing social distancing rules and introducing a new daily life with COVID-19.

The government warned against a possible rapid growth of cluster infections since the first confirmed case on Wednesday, and urged visitors to the affected establishments to get tested.

"We need to quickly find patients to stem community transmission," KCDC chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said during a press briefing, urging people who visited the Itaewon clubs from April 24-May 6 to be tested regardless of symptoms.

This week will prove "very crucial to minimize the impact of the virus's spread" which, according to Jeong, hasn't spread beyond the contacts of the first patient, identified as a 29-year-old man from Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.

The Itaewon infections were first reported when the man tested positive on May 6 after visiting five clubs, including King Club, Trunk Club and Club Queen, between the night of May 1 and early hours of May 2.

"We should stop the virus from reaching a high risk group and causing them serious damage," she said, voicing concerns over "a high risk of community transmissions" as the infection broke out among active, young people who, either asymptomatic or having mild symptoms, naturally spend more time interacting with others.

According to the health authorities, a total of 2,456 people, out of 5,517 visitors to the Itaewon clubs, have been tested for COVID-19, and the number rose to 3,077 when including the visitor's contacts.

Considering the virus's average 4-7 day incubation period, the authorities expect more infections to appear by this Wednesday, she said, asking for swift testing for those who might have been exposed.

"I heard some people are reluctant to get tested for fear of being criticized. We will try hard to make sure everyone receives a test without feeling uncomfortable or prejudiced against," she added.

Quarantine officials spray disinfectant on a street in the international district of Itaewon in Seoul, on May 11, 2020, as scores of new cases were reported from people who recently visited entertainment places in the area. (Yonhap)

In an effort to more effectively contain the spread, the Seoul city government said it would provide free testing to club visitors, as it couldn't get hold of a vast majority of them.

"This means they intentionally avoided our calls or wrote a wrong number in the first place," Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said during a separate briefing.

In order to encourage those who don't want to reveal their identities, the city will offer free, anonymous testing, he said.

On this front, the city has been working with the police to identify and reach them.

"We will urgently deploy the coronavirus response team to identify and locate the club visitors as soon as possible," an official at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said in a briefing.

The 2,162-member team will check credit card transactions, cell phone signals and close-circuit television in the affected areas.

Meanwhile, the southern city of Daegu placed a two-week shutdown order on the city's nightlife establishments, some 1,300 in total. The move came after Seoul and Gyeonggi Province took the same measure on such facilities on Saturday and Sunday in the aftermath of the cluster infections in Itaewon.

Daegu government said some of the widely used entertainment facilities failed to maintain social distancing and other quarantine measures and the shutdown was a precautionary measure.

"We are discovering an increasing number of Itaewon club visitors (around the country) and we conclude there is a risk of community transmissions," Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said, adding the administrative order is "inevitable to stem the spread of the infectious disease."

The country reported 35 more cases of the new coronavirus Monday, the biggest single day spike since April 9, bringing the nation's total infections to 10,909. In Seoul, there have been a total of 698 infection cases, up by 10 confirmed cases.

People pass by a club in the multicultural district of Itaewon in Seoul on May 7, 2020. The club was shut down after some of its visitors tested positive for the coronavirus recently. (Yonhap)

jaeyeon.woo@yna.co.kr
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