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(4th LD) S. Korea tracking hidden virus cases tied to Itaewon cluster amid community spread concerns

All News 18:41 May 13, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with the latest tally in 3rd para)

SEOUL, May 13 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's health authorities on Wednesday again urged those who visited Itaewon in Seoul, the site of another infection cluster, to receive coronavirus tests amid growing concerns over community spread.

Twenty-six new cases of COVID-19 were reported Wednesday, with 18 of them tied to nightclubs and bars in the popular nightlife district in downtown Seoul, bringing the nation's total coronavirus cases to 10,962, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

The number of cases connected to the Itaewon cluster has reached at least 120, including 70 from Seoul, as of late Wednesday amid growing concerns over a possible new wave of infections in the country, according to the Seoul city government.

Of those cases, 43 were family members or acquaintances of people who visited Itaewon clubs.

By age group, 73 patients were in their 20s, while 11 were aged 19 or younger, the KCDC said.

So far, 22,000 people have received virus tests over the virus outbreak in Itaewon, according to the KCDC.

Health workers at the National Medical Center in Seoul prepare to work on May 13, 2020. (Yonhap)

Health authorities once again pressed those who visited Itaewon clubs and bars between April 24 and May 6 to be tested for COVID-19 and fully cooperate with their epidemiological investigations.

"Preventing community spread of the virus is a time game," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said. "If health authorities can't take actions properly due to incorrect statements, we may not stem secondary and tertiary infections and our entire society could be put at risk again."

Kim said the government will revise information disclosure guidelines on the movements of virus patients to better protect their privacy and to encourage more people to get tested.

Health authorities added people can now get tested anonymously across the nation.

The country had been adding fewer than 15 cases of COVID-19 since mid-April, with the number of domestic infections even falling to zero at some points.

But the number of daily new cases has been hovering around 30 for the past three days after the country saw an unexpected spike in cases coming from entertainment facilities, with secondary and suspected tertiary infections also reported.

KCDC chief Jeong Eun-kyeong said health authorities are also keeping a watchful eye on cases identified in entertainment facilities outside Itaewon, which includes a bar in the university district of Hongdae, western Seoul.

Jeong said there is a need to reinforce the system of assessing virus risks according to facility, so that the country can better deal with virus prevention measures.

A health worker collects sample from a police for the novel coronavirus test at the National Medical Center in Seoul on May 13, 2020. (Yonhap)

Imported cases, previously the biggest threat for South Korea's quarantine operations over recent days, are now less of a concern, though the country still reported four more such cases, raising total infections coming from overseas to 1,142.

South Korea's virus death toll climbed to 259 after adding one more fatality, according to the KCDC, with the mortality rate reaching 2.36 percent.

The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 9,695, up 25 from a day earlier, bringing the nation's virus recovery rate to 88.4 percent.

After flattening the curve of COVID-19, South Korea gave the go-ahead last Wednesday to its "everyday life quarantine" scheme, the normalization of public facilities and other business establishments, under the condition they follow basic sanitation measures.

But due to the recent surge in virus cases, the country decided to push back the reopening of schools by one week, making students physically attend classes in phases starting next Wednesday.

Seoul and other municipal governments have issued an administrative order that bans gatherings at entertainment establishments, a de facto instruction that has forced club and bar owners to suspend their businesses.

Health authorities, however, said they are not considering withdrawing the eased social distancing drive yet, adding that they will make a decision after analyzing the recent virus situation in the country.

Health workers conduct virus tests on residents in the Michuhol district in Incheon on May 13, 2020, after a virus patient visited a church there. (Yonhap)

kdon@yna.co.kr
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