Sarang Jeil Church in Seongbuk, a district in northern Seoul, is at the center of the coronavirus resurgence in Korea. (Yonhap)
Over the past week, Seoul has added novel coronavirus cases at a rate far worse than Daegu did in the days leading up to the first peak in late February, health officials said Tuesday, warning that tighter controls may be reinstated in the capital area.
“This is a moment of grave crisis,” said Kwon Jun-wook, the deputy chief of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during Tuesday’s regular coronavirus briefing. “Reimposing distancing orders appears inevitable if the infections continue to climb.”
Kwon said that “the outbreaks at Seoul churches are spreading to the rest of the country,” making a plea to church authorities nationwide to take adequate precautions and refrain from having in-person services. “Close interactions are not safe in church or in any space where distancing is not possible,” he said.
The latest tally shows that at least 457 cases have stemmed from the Sarang Jeil Church in Seongbuk, a district in northern Seoul -- which is the second-largest cluster of infections in the country to date behind the Shincheonji Church of Jesus cluster of over 5,200 cases.
Health officials say the church cluster is projected to grow further as only half of the church’s roughly 4,000 worshippers have been tested, with the rest either awaiting results or yet to come forward. Nearly 500 remain unaccounted for as of Tuesday.
Health officials convened an emergency meeting with the United Christian Churches of Korea early Tuesday afternoon to solicit cooperation with contact tracing efforts and safety rules. At the meeting, the Christian group agreed to move church services in the Seoul area online for the next two weeks.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced at 5 p.m. that all in-person services and gatherings at Seoul churches will be banned from Wednesday. Any failures to comply may result in fines of as much as 3 million won ($2,500) per laws on infectious disease control.
Jung Eun-kyeong, the KCDC’s director, said in a briefing Monday that the summer resurgence seemed to pose tougher challenges than previous outbreaks. “If immediate action is not taken to control the spread, there could be an exponential explosion in the numbers,” she said.
“About half of the patients diagnosed in Seoul are older than 50 and are at greater risk of developing more severe symptoms. This could lead to a shortage of intensive care beds in the city,” she added.
Meanwhile, the Gyeonggi provincial office issued administrative orders requiring all visitors to the church in question to get tested for the coronavirus. A mask mandate has also been enforced in the province as the cumulative caseload crossed the 2,000 mark Tuesday.
Korea counted 246 more cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 15,761, according to the national disease control agency’s database. This marks the fifth consecutive day of triple-digit daily figures in the country since they spiked to 104 on Friday. Seoul hit a record high of 131, accounting for most of the 235 locally transmitted cases.
One more person died in the 24 hours ending Monday at midnight, putting the death toll at 306 and the death rate at 1.94 percent. Some 1,521 patients are currently undergoing treatment in isolation, of whom nine are in critical condition.
By Kim Arin (firstname.lastname@example.org