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(4th LD) S. Korea at critical juncture to stem further virus spread after Itaewon cluster

National 17:04 May 15, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS official's remarks and more info in paras 20-25)

SEOUL, May 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korean health authorities said Friday that this weekend will be a critical juncture in the country's efforts to stem the further spread of the virus following cluster infections in a nightlife zone in Seoul, as more citizens may be exposed to the virus over the weekend.

Twenty-seven new cases of COVID-19 were detected Thursday, with 22 of them being local infections, bringing the nation's total number to 11,018, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

Of the newly added cases, 17 are connected to bars and clubs in Seoul's popular nightlife district of Itaewon between April 24 and May 6, according to the KCDC.

As of Friday noon, a total of 153 people have tested positive in connection with the Itaewon outbreak, including 90 clubgoers and 63 of their family members, coworkers and contacts, indicating that secondary and tertiary infections from the nightclub cases have already emerged, the KCDC said.

Park Min-young, the homeroom teacher of a sixth-grade class, conducts a remote class at an empty classroom in Borame Elementary School in Seoul, on May 15, 2020, Teachers' Day, as South Korea has introduced online classes for elementary, middle and high schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. On the screen is a message in Korean that says, "Mr. Park, Thank You." (Yonhap)

Health authorities are staying vigilant against the community spread of COVID-19 connected to the Itaewon cluster that began early this month, urging those who visited places in the neighborhood to get virus tests.

"A slew of secondary and tertiary infections have been reported across the country," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said. "We expect to witness small-sized cluster infection cases down the road."

Health authorities again urged people to refrain from visiting multiuse facilities and having gatherings this weekend.

South Korea had added fewer than 15 cases of COVID-19 since mid-April, with the number of domestic infections even falling to zero on some days.

However, the number of daily new cases has been between 20 and 30 for the past six days after the country saw an unexpected spike in cases coming from entertainment facilities in Seoul's Itaewon area, with secondary and tertiary infections reported not only in Seoul but other cities.

In an effort to prevent the Itaewon infection cluster from expanding into a mass outbreak, health authorities said they will disinfect nightclubs and bars this weekend.

Of the 22 new local infections, 14 are from Seoul, followed by the western port city of Incheon with four, the KCDC said.

Besides the Itaewon cluster, the KCDC said a total of 15 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in connection with a private academy instructor from Incheon.

The instructor has come under fire after lying about his occupation following his recent visit to a Itaewon club.

For South Korea's quarantine operations, imported cases are now less of a concern, though the country reported five more such cases Friday.

South Korea's oldest COVID-19 patient, a 104-year-old surnamed Choi, is discharged from a hospital in Pohang, South Korea, on May 15, 2020. (Yonhap)

South Korea's virus deaths remained the same at 260, according to the KCDC, with the mortality rate reaching 2.37 percent.

The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 9,821, up 59 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.

The country has carried out COVID-19 tests on 726,747 people since Jan. 3, including 15,263 from a day earlier.

The number of people undergoing tests has spiked recently due to cases linked to nightspots in Itaewon.

Some 4,300 out of estimated 5,500 visitors to five nightclubs have been tested over the Itaewon infection cluster, according to the KCDC.

Health authorities said they are still tracking down the whereabouts of some 1,200 clubgoers during the cited period.

KCDC Chief Jeong Eun-kyeong cautioned against additional infections at other cluster facilities such as karaoke rooms, also known as noraebang in Korean.

A chain transmission has been reported at another karaoke room in the northeastern Seoul ward of Dobong, where an acquaintance of an Itaewon clubber visited.

"There is a possibility that the virus was transmitted through contacts in common areas, such as toilets and resting rooms," she said, adding that the virus might have spread through tiny droplets in the air, not the air ventilation system.

On May 6, the country switched to an "everyday life quarantine" and the normalization of public facilities and other business establishments, under the condition they follow basic sanitation measures.

However, due to the recent surge in virus cases traced to the Itaewon area, the country has decided to push back the reopening of schools by one week.

The KCDC said schools will reopen as planned Wednesday, allowing students to begin physically attending classes.

A sign shows the Seoul Central District Court is temporarily closed on May 15, 2020, after one of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. (Yonhap)


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