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(2nd LD) Church-tied virus cases stoke concerns over new wave of infections in greater Seoul

All Headlines 11:42 June 03, 2020

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SEOUL, June 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's new virus cases spiked again Wednesday as cluster infections tied to religious gatherings in the greater Seoul area continued to swell, putting further strain on the country's virus fight.

The country added 49 more cases of the new coronavirus, including 46 local infections, raising the total caseload to 11,590, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

The densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country's 50 million population, had all but one of the locally transmitted cases, fueling concerns that a new wave of COVID-19 infections may occur.

"We urge residents of the greater Seoul area to refrain from participating in gatherings and events until the weekend, and especially to avoid restaurants, PC cafes and cram schools," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a briefing.

A teacher wearing gloves hands out flyers to her students at a high school in Gwacheon, just south of Seoul, on June 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

The daily number of new infections had been slowing, albeit with some ups and downs, since hitting a nearly two-month high of 75 last week.

It stayed below 40 for the past four days. Any numbers above the 50 threshold mean South Korea has to seriously consider going back to strict social distancing, again shuttering schools and public facilities nationwide.

Church-linked transmission in Seoul and surrounding areas have been a new source of concern for health authorities.

After the country eased social distancing guidelines in early May, the country has reported more than 100 cases from churches. Nearly most of them were from the Seoul metropolitan area.

On Tuesday, the number of cases tied to 23 small churches in Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, first detected Sunday, reached 45, up 22 from a day ago, according to the KCDC.

Since May 6, South Korea has been rolling out what it calls an "everyday life quarantine" campaign, which aimed at normalizing most of the daily activities under basic quarantine measures.

The eased social distancing scheme has been in peril, however, as cluster infections among clubgoers in central Seoul emerged early last month. More recently, mass infections connected to a logistics center have been a difficult task for health authorities.

Alarmed by the spiking new infections tied to clubs and the distribution center just west of Seoul, South Korea rushed to enhance quarantine measures in the greater Seoul area.

The country's health authorities warned that citizens will be forced to go back to the strict social distancing scheme nationwide should it fail to get the virus spread under control by June 14.

As of Tuesday, a total of 270 infections have been linked to clubgoers and 117 cases to the warehouse run by e-commerce giant Coupang.

Students wash their hands with sanitizers before entering their classrooms in a high school located in Gwangju, 329 kilometers south of Seoul, on June 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

Health authorities also fleshed out guidelines for leisure activity-related business establishments ahead of the summer vacation season, including amusement parks, advising all visitors to bring their own towels and swimming suits while keeping a safe distance of two meters from others.

Sporadic cluster infections are also putting health authorities to the test as more students are set to return to schools.

Students have been gradually returning to classrooms in phases since late last month, although some schools, most of them from the greater Seoul area, were forced to delay the schedule due to local infections.

On Wednesday, first-year high school students, second-year middle school students and other selected elementary school students returned to their classrooms.

When the third phase is completed, 4.59 million, about 77 percent of all South Korean school kids, will be attending in-person classes.

Schools, however, will continue taking precautionary measures, including staggered lunches, shifting student attendance, reduced class time, and a mix of online and offline classes.

"Although there were virus cases reported from schools, they did not lead to new cluster infections within schools," Kim said. "Given that we thoroughly stick to sanitary measures, the third-phase school reopenings can be carried out without problems."

A school official wearing a costume welcomes students at a middle school in Daejeon, 164 kilometers south of Seoul, on June 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

The country added one death, raising the total death toll to 273. The fatality rate reached 2.36 percent.

The accumulated number of imported cases reached 1,269, up three from a day earlier.

The total number of people released from quarantine after full recoveries stood at 10,467, moving up 21 from the previous day. Around 90 percent of local COVID-19 patients have been cured.

South Korea has carried out 956,852 COVID-19 tests since Jan. 3, including 17,001 a day earlier. The country reported its first new coronavirus case from a Chinese person on Jan. 20.

Health authorities said they will continue efforts to promote the use of quick response (QR) code-based registrations at virus infection-prone facilities to track visitors.

Visitors to entertainment and other facilities are required to get a one-time QR code via smartphone apps and submit it to the managers of such facilities before entering. The venue managers then scan the code and includes it in a digital customer register.

"In terms of privacy, we believe this measure is more safe than having people check identity cards and write down their contact details directly," Kim said. "The collected information will be scrapped after a certain amount of time."

colin@yna.co.kr
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