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Number of COVID cases rise after rally in Seoul, more developments on aftermath

Fear of virus spread grows as contract tracing faces hurdle

South Korean health authorities are racing against time to prevent a massive second wave of coronavirus infections, as contact tracing is fraught with challenges.

At the center of the problems is a church led by a far-right pastor and vocal critic of President Moon Jae-in, with followers from all over the country -- many of them participated in a massive anti-government rally Saturday.

An accumulated number of cases traced to the church stood at 457 as of Tuesday noon, up 138 from a day earlier, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Breach of virus protection rules coupled with an uncooperative response to antivirus measures by the pastor and members of Sarang Jeil Church in Seongbuk-gu appear to make it harder for health officials to control the situation than when dealing with previous mass infection clusters, as in Seoul’s popular nightlife district Itaewon and the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.

At least 10 members of Sarang Jeil Church attended at least one of two protests near the main palace Gyeongbokgung on Aug. 8 and at Gwanghwamun Plaza on Saturday.

The church’s Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon tested positive Monday after joining the weekend anti-government rally along with thousands of people, where they shouted slogans and sat close to one another.

Given that a large number of unidentifiable people gathered for the rallies, concerns are mounting over possible chain transmissions.

“We are very concerned over the possibility that additional infection spread could have been caused by close contact during rallies,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said during a daily briefing Tuesday morning.

Kim urged those who joined the two rallies to get tested at nearby community health care centers regardless of symptoms.

While the church-linked infections centered on Seoul and surrounding areas like Gyeonggi Province and Incheon which reported 432 cases in total, other 25 cases were logged in five major cities and provinces outside of the Greater Seoul area.

Of some 4,066 members of the church, health officials have located 3,436, but other 630 people could not be reached.

The positivity rate for COVID-19 at the church stood at 15 percent, as 383 people had tested positive among 2,500 people who underwent testing.

“The positivity rate of Sarang Jeil Church is very high, which requires swift tests and isolation. But we are in a difficult situation to conduct the needed testing and isolation on the people whom we still can’t confirm contact details or remain out of contact,” Kim said.

Making the situation worse, two church members attempted to flee after testing positive.

A man in his 50s escaped from a hospital in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Tuesday after being placed under treatment. He was founded to have attended a church service on Aug. 9. Police are working on tracking him down.

On Monday, a woman in her 40s was caught by police after trying to make a getaway ahead of a transfer to a hospital from her home in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province. She had stayed at the church for nearly five months before going back to Pohang on Thursday. She had symptoms of a cough and fever when she attended the anti-government rally on Saturday.

“Those who refuse to get treated or flee could face criminal punishment as they violate isolation measures,” Kim said.

Some municipalities began working with police to track down participants of the anti-government rallies and other church members with unknown whereabouts.

When health authorities had difficulties in locating members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the single largest infection cluster so far, in February and March, police set up a joint team comprising over 8,500 police officers across the country to track down 9,000 people.

For those unable to be reached by health officials by phone, police will analyze surveillance footage, as well as details of their use of credit cards and cellphones.

But a bumpy road is expected for police investigations as some protesters reportedly turned off their phones and used cash during the rallies in order to avoid contact tracing.

By Park Han-na (hnpark@heraldcorp.com)

Parties clash over controversial rally

The main opposition party has come under fire after some of its members joined a rally against Moon Jae-in that was held in defiance of disease control orders and was also attended by Jun Gwang-hun, a right-wing pastor who has been leading a campaign against President Moon Jae-in.

In response to the ruling party criticisms, leaders of the opposition United Future Party sought to distance themselves from Jun and the rally.

The pastor, who faces charges of election law violations, tested positive for the new coronavirus following the conservative rally in central Seoul on Saturday.

With Jun’s infection being confirmed Monday, speculation has risen that he had the virus when he attended the rally on Saturday. Authorities accuse Jun of defying the country’s anti-virus efforts by attending the rally because, although it was not organized by his church, it took place after a virus outbreak among members of his church came to light.

Jun and his church have also been accused of quarantine authorities’ efforts to carry out disinfections of the church, and tracking members of its congregation for possible infection.

Saying that interfering with epidemiological survey was a serious crime, Democratic Party floor leader Rep. Kim Tae-nyeon, Kim called on the main opposition to take action.

“The United Future Party must make its position on Jun clear, and hold responsible the party members who defended (Jun).”

“(The United Future Party) should apologize to the people for effectively abetting the Aug. 15 rally,” Kim said, adding that that the main opposition party should have prohibited its members from attending the rally.

Rep. You Kwan-suk, deputy chief of the party‘s policy committee, also took issue with current and former United Future Party lawmakers attending the rally, claiming that it was an action that “clearly threatens the safety and lives of the people.”

United Future Party figures present at the rally include Rep. Hong Moon-pyo, and former lawmakers Kim Jin-tae and Min Kyung-wook. Hong has since defended his presence, saying that he stayed for about 10 minutes only to greet residents of his constituency who were attending the rally.

The main opposition, for its part, is distancing itself from Jun and the rally.

United Future Party’s interim leader Kim Chong-in branded the ruling party’s calls “childish politics,” and claimed that the Democratic Party was attempting to use the developments for political gain.

The main opposition’s floor leader Rep. Joo Ho-young took a similar position on Jun, saying that the party has no connection to Jun, and that the only link between the pastor and the party was the personal relationship between Jun and former party leader Hwang Kyo-ahn.

Joo, however, said that the rally itself should not be looked at only in terms of the fight against COVID-19.

Speaking in a radio interview, Joo said that such rallies should not be held in light of the COVID-19 situation, but that the presidential office and the ruling party must listen to the message voiced at the rally.

“The fact that message against, and critical of the administration was voiced despite the risk of infection and heavy rain must be looked at in a different light,” Joo said, saying that the presidential office’s view on the rally was unbalanced.

The rally was held despite warnings from health authorities and Seoul Metropolitan Government prohibiting the use of the Gwanghwamun area, which prompted President Moon Jae-in to call for stern response from the government.

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)

Second, worse wave underway in Korea: KCDC

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 (arin@heraldcorp.com)

Spike in church infections grips greater Seoul, government warns of stern response

A continued surge in church-related infections put the greater Seoul area on edge Wednesday, prompting the government to consider tougher measures against a church at the center of the COVID-19 resurgence.

South Korea reported 297 new infections, the largest number of cases since early March, which has raised the country's total caseload to 16,058, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

The majority of the recent infections have come from Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, whose pastor Jun Kwang-hoon has led several anti-government rallies in central Seoul. In the most recent rally held Saturday, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Gwanghwamun, chanting slogans and sitting close to one another.

Jun himself has tested positive, and health authorities are screening church members and demonstrators based on a list submitted by the church. The list, however, has turned out to be inaccurate, raising concerns over infected people unconsciously spreading the virus across the country.

"The screening tests have not yet been completed as the church has not submitted an accurate list amid concerns of a nationwide spread," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a daily government response meeting.

"At the moment, it's a fight against time," he said, "The Seoul city government should closely cooperate with the prosecution and police to push for legal means, such as a compulsive administrative inspection to secure (an accurate) list."

Chung emphasized that the government will take stern action, such as filing a compensation suit, against those who disturb ongoing screening tests and epidemiological studies.

The city government, which has filed a criminal complaint against Jun, said it plans to also file suits against individuals for "wasting administrative resources and budget by evading, lying or disobeying during screening and tracing procedures," acting Mayor Seo Jeong-hyup said in a press briefing.

Seo also imposed an order for all Seoul residents who attended rallies in Gwanghwamun on Aug. 8 and 15 to be tested for the virus. Demonstrators who later test positive will face up to 3 million won ($2,534) in fines for breaking the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, he said.

Police, meanwhile, mobilized more than 8,500 officers to trace Sarang Jeil Church members who remain unaccounted for. Of the church's estimated 4,000 members, 3,200 are under quarantine and 2,500 have been tested. Some 800, however, have yet to be located.

The prime minister, however, said South Korea is not yet at the stage of considering Level Three social distancing, which would impose stricter anti-infection measures compared with the current Level Two scheme.

"Raising (the social distancing level) to Level Three, which would ban meetings of 10 or more people, would substantially shock the citizens' lives and economy," he said. "The priority now should be to block the current situation from developing into one that calls for Level Three."

In addition to raising the social distancing level by one notch over the weekend, the government on Tuesday announced a decision to prohibit churches in Seoul and nearby areas from carrying out all in-person activities.

Under the current social distancing measure, indoor gatherings of 50 or more people and outdoor events of 100 or more people are also prohibited, while citizens are advised to stay at home except on necessary occasions.

In Seoul, 12 types of high-risk facilities, including 5,134 nightlife facilities, 7,735 karaoke facilities and internet cafes, as well as 402 private sector education institutions with 300 or more students, have been suspended until further notice.

The Level Three calls for restrictions on all outdoor activities except for essential social and economic purposes. Gatherings of 10 or more people are not permitted, and all sports events are suspended. (Yonhap)

Runaway COVID-19 patient caught at Seoul cafe

A COVID-19 patient who ran away from a hospital was apprehended in the early hours of Wednesday.

The man, in his 50s, was confirmed to have the coronavirus after attending a service at the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul.

He was apprehended at about 1:15 a.m. at a coffee shop in Sinchon, Seoul, after running away from the hospital in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, 25 hours earlier.

It has been reported that there were about 40 people at the coffee shop when the man was taken into custody.

His motive for running away from the hospital, where he was in isolation and receiving treatment for COVID-19, remains unclear.

The Sarang Jeil Church, led by the controversial pastor Jun Kwang-hoon, is at the center of a resurgence of the virus in Seoul and the surrounding area. Several hundred members of the congregation have been confirmed positive for the virus, including Jun, his wife and his secretary.

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)

Source: @TheKoreaHerald, The Korea Herald (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Tags: health, political news, social issues
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