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(2nd LD) S. Korea grapples with virus uptick amid cluster infections

All News 12:00 May 20, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with more details throughout; CHANGES photo)

SEOUL, May 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new virus cases rose by the highest number in nine days Wednesday amid looming mass infections at a major hospital in Seoul and a rise in nightclub-linked cases.

An uptick in virus cases put health authorities on higher alert over further community spread as high school seniors began to return to schools following a monthslong school closure over the pandemic.

The country added 32 new coronavirus cases, raising the total caseload to 11,110, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). Of the new COVID-19 cases detected Tuesday, 24 were local infections.

The daily new infections mark the largest since May 11, when the number hit 35.

Hospital officials and health workers at Samsung Medical Center in southern Seoul wait to receive tests for the new coronavirus on May 20, 2020. (Yonhap)

Concerns about yet another cluster of infections emerged, as four nurses working at Samsung Medical Center, one of the country's five major general hospitals, were infected with COVID-19.

Health authorities said more related cases are likely to spring up, as transmission routes are unknown.

Contact tracing is being conducted to determine whether the source of infections originated in the hospital. A study is under way into 623 people who came into contact with the infected nurses.

Cases tied to clubs in Seoul's nightlife district of Itaewon have not evolved into "explosive" infections but continued to increase steadily. The total caseload linked to the Itaewon cluster reached 193 as of Tuesday.

Health authorities remain vigilant against further community spread at a time when more schools are set to reopen in the coming weeks.

The education ministry went ahead with phased school reopening as scheduled amid a letup in Itaewon-linked infections.

As precautionary measures, Incheon, west of Seoul, and the southern city of Anseong ordered third graders at 75 high schools to go home immediately and to stay home for a while.

Two high school students tested positive in Incheon, in what could be infections tied to the Itaewon outbreak.

A teacher at a high school in Seoul explains quarantine measures to high school third graders on May 20, 2020, as South Korea reopened schools following a monthslong closure over the new coronavirus. (Yonhap)

Health authorities said COVID-19 infections appear to be well contained in risk-prone facilities, such as churches and hospitals.

"But virus infections are spreading at facilities like clubs and karaoke," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a briefing.

Despite a steady rise in cluster infections, Kim said it is not appropriate to immediately return to strict social distancing.

"Efforts to minimize virus infections should be prioritized through thorough quarantine measures in communities. Even if sporadic infections occur, it is not appropriate to return to the stricter social distancing system," Kim added.

South Korea switched to an "everyday life quarantine" scheme on May 6 to enable citizens to carry out social and economic activities under quarantine rules.

The country, meanwhile, added eight imported cases and reported no additional deaths, with the total death toll staying at 263. The fatality rate was 2.37 percent.

The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 10,066, up 128 from the previous day.

The country, with a population of more than 50 million, has carried out 776,433 tests since Jan. 3, including 10,859 the previous day.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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