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S. Korea's coronavirus cases soar past 6,000

Health authorities say closely watching cluster infections  

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : March 5, 2020 - 18:03

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(Yonhap) (Yonhap)

South Korea’s coronavirus cases surged past 6,000 with 41 deaths Thursday, as the government shifted its focus to minor clusters of coronavirus infections, so far overshadowed by the massive number related to Shincheonji Church of Jesus.

Nearly 70 percent of Korea’s coronavirus cases are classified as cluster infection cases, while 30.6 percent are sporadic with their exact infection routes being scrutinized, health authorities said.

The latest mass transmission cases were found in a nursing home in Bonghwa County, North Gyeongsang Province, with 34 people -- 24 inpatients and 10 staff members -- newly confirmed to be infected.

Of the country’s total, 59.9 percent of the cases have been traced to a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, making it the country’s largest cluster of infections.

According to data from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Thursday afternoon, Korea’s total number of infections rose to 6,088, and the death toll stands at 41.

So far, those who have died from COVID-19 are mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, with the overall fatality rate standing at 0.6 percent.

Twenty-six people were currently in critical condition, the KCDC said.

The country’s number of coronavirus cases has begun to increase at a slower pace, with 516 cases confirmed Tuesday and 438 Wednesday, after surging to increase by 600 on Monday.

But the country should still be on alert for possibilities of a second or third wave of transmission, according to Kwon Jun-wook, a KCDC official, at an afternoon briefing.

“We assess the current situation is the most critical time,” he said at a briefing Thursday afternoon. “It is hard to attach significance to the number of new cases.”

Gyeongsan, a city in North Gyeongsang Province that borders Daegu, was designated as a “special management zone” Thursday in order to prevent community spread by detecting patients and treating them early.

Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province combined represent 90 percent of the total cases here.

Of new cases tallied as of Wednesday midnight, 320 cases (73 percent) were confirmed in the southeastern city of Daegu at the heart of the country’s virus outbreak, with 87 cases (19 percent) in North Gyeongsang Province. Nine new cases each were reported in Gyeonggi Province and South Gyeongsang Province, as well as four each in Seoul and South Chungcheong Province and two in Gangwon Province.

Cases in Gyeongsan make up 40 percent of the province’s total. Of the new cases confirmed Thursday, 73 percent of the cases -- 65 out of 89 -- were reported there. More than half of the new cases were linked to the Shincheonji’s Daegu branch.

Daegu and Cheongdo in North Gyeongsang Province were already designated special management zones, with the government’s quarantine efforts focused on the areas.

Also on Thursday, the government conducted an administrative investigation into the headquarters of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, amid criticism by municipalities over the credibility of the list of followers provided by the church.

As the government has nearly finished health checks on the Shincheonji followers -- some 310,000 nationwide -- it shifted its testing capacity to ordinary people in Daegu and focused on preventing further fatalities by concentrating resources on treating “high-risk groups.”

Starting Monday, the government began to categorize confirmed patients in four groups according to their condition and to transfer those with mild symptoms to designated state-run facilities for quarantine and treatment.

Four more treatment centers will open in South Chungcheong Province and Daegu, with an aim to accommodate 2,000 patients with no or mild symptoms by the end of this week.

Some 1,800 confirmed patients in Daegu were in self-quarantine at their homes waiting to be hospitalized on Wednesday, while 584 patients with no or mild symptoms have been taken to community treatment centers, according to the authorities.

The government will extend the closure of day care centers by two more weeks until March 22. It also recommended a shutdown of social welfare facilities until March 22.

The country released 47 more fully recovered coronavirus patients on Thursday, pushing up the number of those discharged from quarantine to 88.

The number of people being tested for the virus stood at 21,810 as of Wednesday midnight. The country has tested a total of 140,775 people, with 118,965 testing negative.

Amid coronavirus fears, some 98 countries and regions are imposing travel warnings on Korea or entry bans or toughened quarantine procedures on visitors from the country.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)