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Potential clusters of COVID-19 virus emerge outside Daegu

Feb. 25, 2020 - 16:14 By Ock Hyun-ju

South Korea reported a surge in cases of the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, with most cases traceable to a branch of a minor Christian sect in Daegu and a hospital in a neighboring county, amid the government’s struggle to prevent its spread outside Daegu.

Fears about the community spread of COVID-19 are growing, with new cases occurring in 21 people at a facility for the mentally challenged, a pastor at a megachurch in Seoul and a Korean Air cabin crew member.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the number of infections had surged to 977, with most of the cases linked to a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu and the Cheongdo Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, North Gyeongsang Province.

Of the 977 cases, 791 were in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A 58-year-old man, who had been hospitalized at Cheongdo Daeman Hospital, became the 10th coronavirus-related death in the country. Of the 10 deaths, seven are linked to the hospital. 

President Moon Jae-in made a visit to Daegu on Tuesday afternoon for the first time since the outbreak started. Saying there should be a turning point this week in containing the spread of the virus, he vowed to mobilize all resources available.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun plans to be stationed in Daegu to take charge of the government’s response on site, according to Moon.

The government, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the presidential office agreed to ramp up quarantine measures in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, though no lockdowns will be imposed.

Five pneumonia patients in Daegu tested positive for the virus when authorities checked all 514 pneumonia patients in the city, according to health authorities.

The government will focus quarantine efforts on blocking routes of infection linked to the Daegu church as the church members are driving a second and third wave of person-to-person infections, KCDC head Jung Eun-kyeong said at a briefing.

The government secured the full list of an estimated 240,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a hotbed of the coronavirus, and plans to get all its members tested for the virus.

The health status of 9,336 members of the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji church is already being checked, with the members being placed in self-isolation. Three of the members could not be reached.

Potential clusters of the virus appear to be emerging outside Daegu.

In Seoul, a pastor at Myungsung Church in eastern Seoul, who attended a Sunday service on Feb. 16 along with 2,000 people, was confirmed to be infected with the virus Tuesday. A relative of the pastor also tested positive. 

According to the church, the pastor attended a funeral service held at Cheongdo Daenam Hospital on Feb. 14 with some five church members. Myungsung Church was shut down and the upcoming Sunday service was canceled.

Some 21 people at a facility for the severely disabled -- including 11 inmates, five caretakers and five other staff members -- in Chilgok, North Gyeongsang Province, tested positive Tuesday, after a 46-year-old inmate was confirmed infected a day earlier. Some 56 people are housed there.

A cabin crew member of Korean Air tested positive for the coronavirus, the Korean airline said Tuesday, with details of the routes and flights where the crew member worked not yet identified.

In Busan, most cases, 21 of 38 as of Tuesday morning, are tied to a church in the city. Most of them went on a two-day trip with a confirmed patient, the 19-year-old son of a Wuhan resident. A nursing hospital in the city was placed under cohort isolation, with some 200 patients and medical staff inside, as one of the caretakers had been infected with the virus.

The government said it is not considering expanding an entry ban on Chinese people amid growing public concerns as Chinese students are set to return to Korea for the spring semester. Currently, only those flying from Wuhan, Hubei province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, are prohibited from entering the country.

The fast spread of the novel coronavirus is also disrupting the schedule for state exams.

This year’s civil service exams scheduled for Saturday have been temporarily suspended, according to the Ministry of Personnel Management.

Some 20 patients were in critical condition as of Tuesday morning.

A total of 22 people have been released after making a full recovery, and 13,880 people were awaiting test results as of Tuesday afternoon.