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S. Korea to alter reopening plan after nightclub outbreak

A Seoul courtroom undergoes disinfection on Friday. (Yonhap)
A Seoul courtroom undergoes disinfection on Friday. (Yonhap)

South Korea ventured into uncharted waters by reopening in early May, only to have the novel coronavirus cases bounce back with a fresh outbreak among young partygoers in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in Seoul.

Over 60,000 tests later, health authorities say the new cluster appears less intimidating than first thought and admit a major revision may be needed in its reopening guidance to prevent a similar mistake.

After the curve effectively flattened with two months of stringent social distancing, Korea found itself on the verge of a relapse in virus cases when a 29-year-old nightclub visitor tested positive on May 9 -- on the day the government guidelines on physical distancing expired.

The prospects seemed bleak as at least 7,000 were discovered to have partied at the night spots where the infections broke out, with the daily tally of new cases rising past 30 in a matter of days.

Health authorities have carried out massive nationwide testing to confirm the proportion of positive cases was not as “explosive” as the first peak of the coronavirus in late February, and vowed the lessons from the nightclub outbreak will not go unlearned.

Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, together with the Ministry of Health, announced over the weekend the reopening guidance issued May 5 will be mended to reflect practical limitations.

In a press briefing Monday, senior health official Yoon Tae-ho said the government will hold a meeting Tuesday with advisory board comprising coronavirus experts to make necessary updates in the guidance. 

Speaking to reporters, Yoon said discussions were currently underway for “detailing the safety steps further” for enhanced public compliance.

KCDC Director Jung Eun-kyeong once again cautioned against eroding public commitment to social distancing on Monday, as one of the 170 virus patients with Itaewon ties was found to have made stops at another nightlife establishment in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province.

“Anyone who has visited the nightclubs are strongly urged to report to authorities and seek testing,” she said.

Former KCDC Director and pulmonologist Dr. Jung Ki-suck said the health officials should adopt a “risk-based” approach to reopening.

“The existing guidance failed in terms of practicality. Wearing face masks and ventilating every couple of hours are not viable at a nightclub, for instance,” he said.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University Hospital in Guro, southern Seoul, said the recent instances of social distancing violation are “conspicuous signs that fatigue over the coronavirus is growing.”

“But the virus cannot be expected to behave in accordance with our timeline,” he said, stressing that as long as the pandemic is enduring, adherence to coronavirus precautions has to be “accepted as part of everyday reality.”

Kim pointed out the government’s coronavirus plans so far lacked a long-term vision.

“Government measures came with a short expiration date, although it was apparent from early on that the virus will hold a long-lasting presence. Such myopic presentation left the public wondering how policies will change next week or the week after that,” he said.

“Responsible risk communication entails giving people a fuller picture of what to expect without downplaying potential threats.”

Korea remains just as vulnerable to the coronavirus as when the first case emerged on Jan. 20, according to another former chief of the KCDC and preventive medicine specialist Dr. Jun Byung-yool.

“The majority of Koreans are without immunity and susceptible to coronavirus infection,” he said. “The government has yet to work out how widespread the virus really is.”

“The nightclub case is a wake-up call that complacency over the virus can easily lead to another spike in infections,” Jun said.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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