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S. Korea seeks heftier penalties for quarantine violators

Health care workers make up 2.4 percent of confirmed virus cases

Government officials hold COVID-19 meeting on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Government officials hold COVID-19 meeting on Sunday. (Yonhap)

South Korean health authorities said Sunday that lying during coronavirus checks constituted an offense, and a no leniency policy would be put in place for all forms of foul play during a quarantine procedure.

“Giving false or deceptive information during the coronavirus investigation can result in up to one year of jail time or 10 million won in fines,” said Korea Centers for Disease Prevention and Control Vice Director Kwon Jun-wook in a press briefing. “Violating a quarantine order can lead to similar penalties per laws on infectious disease control.”

He said as of Friday, 59 people were found in violation of the mandatory stay-at-home order and urged individuals with the virus, or anyone suspected of having the virus, to comply with the contact tracing process.

Taking medicine without declaring it in order to pass thermal screening at the border will be severely punished, Kwon said, addressing a teenage patient who was able to get through the airport last week on a massive dose of fever reducers.

“Traveling infected risks passing on the disease to many unspecified persons coming in contact before, during and after the flight,” Kwon said.

A Korean Air official said in a phone interview that the carrier was denying boarding to passengers with temperatures 37.5 Celsius degrees or higher.

But passengers with symptoms other than fever were still allowed, he said.

Although fever is among common coronavirus symptoms, health experts say up to 25 percent of infected people may remain symptomless.

A total of 81 new cases of the novel coronavirus were reported Sunday, bringing the total to 10,237. Of them, 6,463 people, or 63.1 percent of all confirmed, have recovered. Six more people died, with the death toll reaching 183.

Health care providers working with virus patients appear at high risk of infection.

At least 241 health care workers have contracted the virus as of Friday, according to government data. On Thursday, Korea confirmed a first death of a physician from COVID-19. The KCDC said he was infected by one of patients who came to his office.

Nearly half of newly confirmed patients nationwide were recent travelers from overseas.

In a briefing held the same day, Daegu City Hall said 229 out of 559 overseas arrivals to the city between Wednesday and Friday were noncitizens, which translates to 40.9 percent.

The vast majority of local transmissions are linked to communal activities.

Religious events continue to drive infection numbers. Infection clusters have been found at 10 churches across the country so far.

Seoul metropolitan government said Sunday it would take legal action against a Christian church in Seongbuk district for forgoing city recommendations against in-person services.

Hospitals and nursing homes are at the center of newly emerging infection clusters.

A medical center in eastern Incheon is under investigation after a staffer there tested positive for the disease on Friday. At least 40 staffers and patients tested positive for the virus at another hospital in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province.

To reduce transmissions at health institutions populated by vulnerable groups, the KCDC said visits were highly discouraged.

After instituting a 15-day “intense” social distancing to no effect from March 22, the government is extending its voluntary social distancing campaign for another two weeks.

Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said Saturday that less distancing occurred over the course of the social distancing period. Statistics Korea data showed movement increased by 16.1 percent in past two weeks compared to last week of February, he said.

Asked how government plans to better enforce the distancing measures, Kwon of KCDC said quarantine officials in charge of monitoring people’s movements will be stationed at local governments.

“Social distancing is the most effective form of virus containment,” the vice director said, calling for increased participation.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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