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Virus cases linked to Itaewon clubs spike to 54

KCDC ‘racing against time’ to stop further spread

A Seoul nightclub suspends operation following the sudden spike in cases over the weekend. (Yonhap)
A Seoul nightclub suspends operation following the sudden spike in cases over the weekend. (Yonhap)

A potential second wave of coronavirus infections looms large in South Korea, as a sudden spike in cases linked to Seoul nightclubs is being reported.

Korea confirmed 34 new coronavirus patients on Sunday, marking the highest daily tally since April 9. The cumulative total now stands at 10,874, with 9,610 of them discharged from care upon recovery.

Twenty-four of the newly confirmed cases are tied to an infection cluster in Itaewon, a Seoul district popular for its nightlife, where health authorities believe some 5,700 people could have crossed paths with infected individuals. Authorities had been unable to reach about 2,000 of them as of Sunday afternoon.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Sunday that at least 54 cases have been found linked to the Itaewon nightclubs so far, with the vast majority of contacts yet to be traced. Approximately 30 percent of the 54 patients appeared symptomless.

The disease control agency’s chief Jung Eun-kyeong said in a press briefing that stopping the infection cluster from branching off further was “a race against time.”

“Those who have visited entertainment businesses in Itaewon between end-April and May 6 are strongly urged to limit outings, and get tested regardless of presence of symptoms,” she said.

“Refrain from going outdoors for a while and seek medical attention immediately once symptoms emerge,” Jung said, addressing people who have been in crowded and close-contact settings. “This is how we can stem the silent spread of the coronavirus.”

The spike in infections among clubgoers and their contacts prompted the Seoul Metropolitan Government to reverse the easing on nightclubs and bars Friday, with over 2,100 such businesses ordered to close down indefinitely. Gyeonggi Province followed suit Sunday, forcing nightlife establishments to suspend operations for the next two weeks.

When the government announced earlier this month that it would withdraw most of its coronavirus countermeasures starting Wednesday, the decision was met with opposition from some of the country’s top medical experts.

Less than a week into reopening, the rebound in case count is becoming ominously reminiscent of the start of the explosion of coronavirus cases in late February in Daegu, the city that became the epicenter of Korea’s outbreak.

The major oversight in physical distancing occurred over the long weekend falling April 30 to May 5, when public messaging from the government noticeably mellowed over the flattened curve. Ahead of a shift in virus strategy, health officials reiterated the country was ready to relax distancing, with the tone sounding more hopeful than cautionary.

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters Wednesday that the ministry was “proud of the success in containment,” and that he was “confident” Korea would fare well even after restrictions have been lifted.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said on May 3 following a meeting with health officials that Korea was “forced to compromise disease control” in order to compensate for the socioeconomic costs of extended distancing.

Following the announcement, infectious disease specialist Dr. Lee Jae-gap of Seoul’s Hallym University Hospital sounded the alarm via a Facebook statement posted the same day that read: “Politics butchers disease control again.”

Lee, who was among experts advising the government on its exit strategy, said key parts of his suggestions were “overlooked” in the final guidance, and that he hoped his concerns of a resurgence “would not prove prescient.”

Another infectious disease expert, Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University Hospital in Guro, said the government’s reopening scheme lacked proper risk assessments.

“Korea opened up at once, rather than in phases. Before allowing businesses to return to normal operations, the health officials should conduct a risk assessment and let venues with a low risk of infection open first and go from there,” he said.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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