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Elderly COVID-19 patients surge in S. Korea

June 14, 2020 - 10:36 By Ock Hyun-ju

South Korea is seeing a surge in the number of elderly patients infected with COVID-19, as small-scale, sporadic outbreaks continue to be reported in the densely populated Grater Seoul area.

Korea reported 34 new cases of the novel coronavirus in the 24 hours prior on Sunday, with most cases linked to Seoul-based health product retailer Richway, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Four in 10 new cases in the past week were among the aged, who are more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Some 40.4 percent of patients from June 7-13 were in their 60s or older, according to the data. The country’s overall mortality rate for COVID-19 patients is 2.29 percent, but is 25.61 percent for those aged 80 or older and 10.16 percent for those in their 70s.

“Efforts by residents in the Seoul metropolitan area to keep routine distancing and health authorities’ tracing are blocking a large-scale transmission, but the pace of tracing is not sufficiently keeping up with that of the spread,” said Sohn Young-rae, a senior official from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, at a briefing Sunday.

To accelerate authorities’ tracing speed, the government is pushing to increase the number of epidemiological inspectors and expand the introduction of QR code entry log system at high-risk establishments, he said.

As of Sunday at noon, the number of infections traced to one of the major clusters, Richway, which organized promotional events targeting older people in enclosed spaces, reached 164, up 11 from the previous day.

Those infected at the events are triggering smaller-scale, sporadic outbreaks at other places, such as a private cram school, churches and workplaces, in secondary and tertiary transmissions of the coronavirus.  

There are at least eight clusters of infections traced to Richway, according to the KCDC.

The coronavirus transmission, which spread through bars and clubs in Itaewon in May, has since reached nursing homes. After a woman in her 80s tested positive at a nursing home in northern Seoul, 17 more cases had been reported as of Sunday.

Cases reported over the past two weeks were mostly linked to a warehouse run by e-commerce leader Coupang in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, health product retailer Richway, small group gatherings of church pastors and at table tennis clubs.

“We need to be reminded that the damage would be big, incomparable to (the outbreaks) in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province if the infection spread in the Seoul metropolitan area,” said Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun at a meeting on the country’s coronavirus response Sunday.

What further keeps the government on alert is cases where the transmission routes remain unidentified. As of Sunday, such cases accounted for 9.2 percent -- double the threshold set by the government.

The number of new infections has stayed between 30 and 50 for the past two weeks, and remains concentrated in the Seoul metropolitan area. The daily average number of patients over the two-week period between May 31 and Saturday was 43.6.

Of the new cases, 31 were domestic cases, 29 of which were registered in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province -- home to nearly half of the country’s population. The other three cases were imported from overseas -- one was detected at the airport and two while patients were under self-quarantine.

The Korean government, which loosened its social distancing rules May 6 on the back of a slowing infection rate, is now enforcing “routine distancing” measures for the country as a whole, allowing people to engage in daily activities. But the Seoul metropolitan area is under toughened quarantine measures, which were due to last until June 14.

Alarmed by the continued rise in the number of new infections in the Greater Seoul area, the government said Friday that the toughened quarantine measures would remain in place “indefinitely.”

With 34 new cases, the country’s total caseload rose to 12,085. The death toll remained unchanged at 277.

A total 10,718 patients have so far been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, bringing the portion of recovered patients to 88.6 percent of all confirmed cases, according to the KCDC.

By Ock Hyun-ju (