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S. Korea tracing all potential cases linked to Itaewon cluster via mobile records

All News 14:55 May 13, 2020

SEOUL, May 13 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's health authorities said Wednesday they are tracking those who visited Itaewon in Seoul, the site of yet another cluster infection, with their location histories handed over by telecom operators, to encourage them to receive coronavirus tests and stem the further spread of COVID-19.

The country's three mobile carriers -- SK Telecom Co., KT Corp. and LG Uplus Corp. -- have handed in the location histories of people who were in Itaewon over the period of April 24 to last Wednesday under the request from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

The list only covers visitors who were in Itaewon from midnight to 5:00 a.m. for more than 30 minutes.

The request came as South Korea, which was only a few steps away from eradicating the COVID-19 pandemic, recently saw an uptick in new infections after a man who tested positive for COVID-19 visited multiple clubs and bars in the district on May 1.

Volunteers carry out disinfection operations in the popular neighborhood of Itaewon in Seoul on May 12, 2020. (Yonhap)

The number of cases connected to bars and clubs from the nightlife district has surpassed 110 so far, including patients' family members and acquaintances.

The country added 26 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, with 20 of them tied to nightclubs and bars in Itaewon. So far, 20,000 people received virus tests due to the virus outbreak in the district.

Under the South Korean law, health authorities can request mobile carriers to hand in the location histories of their service subscribers to prevent the spread of contagious diseases.

Seoul also had made a similar request to KT in 2018 amid the spread of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

South Korea also has been attempting to track down potential patients through credit card transactions and closed-circuit TV footage.

Health authorities say it was necessary to obtain the information to prevent a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially considering that nearly 2,000 people who were in Itaewon are still out of contact.

The latest efforts, however, also sparked yet another debate over privacy protection.

Being one of the major victims of the pandemic that originated from China, South Korea has been quick in sharing information of patients, including the list of places they have visited, since it detected the first case on Jan. 20.

The country later set new guidelines advising local governments to hold back unnecessary private information of virus patients, but activists have been saying that South Korea's success in containing the virus came at the price of people's privacy.

South Korea also started to use electronic wristbands equipped with a location-tracking system on people who violate self-isolation rules since late April, although only a handful of them have been actually distributed so far.

colin@yna.co.kr
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