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(4th LD) Church-tied virus cases stoke concerns over new wave of infections in greater Seoul

National 22:43 June 03, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 9-10, 18)

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 transmissions in Seoul and surrounding areas have been a new source of concern for health authorities.

After easing social distancing guidelines in early May, the country has reported more than 100 cases from churches, mostly in the Seoul metropolitan area.

On Wednesday, the number of cases tied to 23 small churches in Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, first detected Sunday, reached 55, up 10 from a day earlier, according to the KCDC. Of these cases, 36 have been linked to Incheon, up by two from a day earlier.

In addition, an insurance planner working at Samsung Fire and Marine Insurance tested positive for the virus, the firm said. It said that she worked on the 20th floor and 10 floors of its office building in Yeoksam, in southern Seoul, have been closed for disinfection. It said the 40-50 people who may have come in contact with the person are being identified for testing.

Since May 6, South Korea has been rolling out what it calls an "everyday life quarantine" campaign, 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.

Volunteer workers prepare food packages for vulnerable households amid the new coronavirus pandemic at a Korean Red Cross office in Seoul on June 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

As of Wednesday, a total of 272 infections have been linked to clubgoers in Itaewon and 119 cases to the warehouse run by e-commerce giant Coupang.

"We are carrying out an examination on whether the infections among religious facilities are connected to other cluster cases," KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said during another press conference. "We believe, however, cluster infections (of Itaewon and the warehouse) have spread to such facilities through patients with mild symptoms."

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, along with "isolated" infections that cannot be traced to a known source, are also putting health authorities to the test as more students are set to return to schools.

Students have been returning to classrooms in phases since late last month, although some schools, mostly in 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."

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.

Employees work at desks with transparent partitions at an office located in central Seoul on June 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

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."

South Korea's drug safety agency allowed remdesivir as a treatment for the new coronavirus, paving the way for inbound shipments of the new drug for the first time.

The country has yet to complete its clinical tests on the new drug, but the authority earlier said the drug has been proven in many other countries to help reduce the time needed to cure coronavirus patients.

But the two earlier suspected cases of an unknown inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) possibly linked to the new coronavirus turned out to be Kawasaki disease, health authorities said. MIS-C started to be reported in Europe and the United States in April.

South Korea said it is currently looking into another suspected case of MIS-C. The symptoms of MIS-C include inflammation of the blood vessels, swollen hands and feet, and vomiting, which are similar to those of Kawasaki disease.


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