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[News Focus] Sejong residents on alert after string of COVID-19 reports

High-density studio apartment living the norm in new city with inadequate hospital infrastructure

A view of Sejong City area around the Geum River on Feb. 26, 2020 (The Korea Herald)
A view of Sejong City area around the Geum River on Feb. 26, 2020 (The Korea Herald)

SEJONG -- Residents of the central administrative city of Sejong are sounding alarm bells now that the COVID-19 epidemic has truly reached them, with five new cases reported over four consecutive days beginning Thursday.

The man who tested positive Thursday was not counted in the statistics for Sejong because he had moved to North Gyeongsang Province before receiving his diagnosis. But he had lived and worked in Sejong until Feb. 29.

A woman in her 40s residing in Saerom-dong was confirmed positive Friday and a woman in her 20s who lived in Dodam-dong was diagnosed Saturday. Their cases were classified as the second and third in Sejong, the first having been reported Feb. 22.

On Sunday, two more women -- one in her 50s living in Saerom-dong and one in her 40s in Goun-dong -- became the city’s fourth and fifth COVID-19 patients.

More than a week earlier, on Feb. 28, a man in his 30s who worked in Sejong also tested positive for the coronavirus. But because his residence was in a city in South Chungcheong Province, the case was counted in the statistics for that province. Also on Feb. 28, a woman in her 40s who lived in Daejeon and worked at an insurance subsidiary of Samsung Group in Naseong-dong, Sejong, was confirmed positive and added to the statistics for Daejeon.

Three of these patients were civil servants based at Government Complex Sejong, where the daily floating population, including visitors, hovers around 20,000.

The woman in her 20s at the center of the third case works for the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The man who moved to North Gyeongsang Province worked for the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans. The man who lives in South Chungcheong Province works for the Ministry of Personnel Management.

While workers in major cities across the nation tend to have long commutes to work, a large proportion of Sejong’s civil servants reside close to the government complex. Many live in studio apartment towers, better known as “officetel” in South Korea, of which there are seven or eight in the vicinity, within a 10 or 20 minute walk from the complex.
 
(Graphic by Kim Sun-young/The Korea Herald)
(Graphic by Kim Sun-young/The Korea Herald)

Prugio City -- a studio apartment building in Eojin-dong, where one COVID-19 patient lived before moving to North Gyeongsang Province -- is attempting to track down all residents who rode the elevator with him in late February.

In this 20-story tower there are about 1,000 households, most consisting of a single occupant. A significant percentage of its residents work for the government complex.

The building management office posted a clip of CCTV footage from its elevator to alert residents that they might be at risk.

“I have heard a series of announcements from the office seeking people living on particular floors to find anyone who may have had contact with the man,” one resident said.

“After the more recent case was made public on TV news, announcements called for civil servant residents to refrain from visiting the government complex over the weekend,” he said, referring to the case of the woman in her 20s who works for the Health Ministry.

That woman lives in a different studio apartment complex, Hanshin Hue City in Dodam-dong, which has more than 400 units, mainly for single-person households.

The young civil servant has been a target of criticism from online commenters for participating in a group workout class in the midst of the nationwide spread of the coronavirus. The instructor, a woman in her 40s, also tested positive.

Meanwhile, a Sejong citizen said, “I don’t think it is appropriate to publicize the past whereabouts, involving what they ate and what they were doing, of the infected people by day and time, in detail.” He said the woman in her 20s “might have desperately needed hobbies while residing alone in a studio, away from her family in her hometown.”

A retailer in Jungang Town, just north of Government Complex Sejong, said, “I gave a sigh of relief when worker at the Agriculture Ministry who was suspected of being infected tested negative (on Feb. 28). But I can see the spread of anxiety among retailers here amid the series of infected civil servants (testing positive) this week.”

After the first case was reported Feb. 22, involving a man in his 30s in Yongpo-ri, Geumnam-myeon, just south of the Geum River, Sejong remained relatively calm for about two weeks. This is despite the fact that some coronavirus patients living in South Chungcheong Province and Daejeon worked in Sejong.

But the four cases reported between Friday and Sunday, based on resident registration, have caused concern.

Since its establishment in July 2012, Sejong has seen its population grow to 343,788 -- only 0.66 percent of the Korean population as of February. For comparison, the average population of just one of Seoul’s 25 administrative wards (“gu” in Korean) was 389,478.

But the administrative city could be influential in terms of the spread of the epidemic, as a significant portion of civil servants and relevant industry workers commute every day from Seoul or Gyeonggi Province, or from the neighboring area encompassing Daejeon and North and South Chungcheong provinces.

Commuters from Seoul and Gyeonggi Province mostly ride to Sejong on express buses or high-speed KTX trains.

Sejong far falls behind major cities in terms of its health infrastructure. The construction of the first large-scale general hospital in the city is still underway downtown.

“We have to wait three more months to see the opening of Chungnam National University Hospital. So, special caution among residents is absolutely necessary in the coming days and weeks,” a resident said.

The 14-story hospital with an envisioned 500 sickbeds is scheduled to open in June after construction is complete by the end of this month. Currently, among Sejong’s hospitals are the eight-story NK Sejong Hospital and a midsized unit of Dankook University Hospital with five sickbeds.

By Kim Yon-se (kys@heraldcorp.com)



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