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How coronavirus cases exploded in South Korean churches and hospitals

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How coronavirus cases exploded in South Korean churches and hospitals

How coronavirus cases exploded in South Korean churches and hospitals

South Korea has announced hundreds of new coronavirus cases in the space of only a few days and raised its infectious disease alert to the highest level. The surge in cases has centred around two main clusters from a church in Daegu city and a nearby hospital. The new outbreak has pushed South Korea’s tally of confirmed cases much higher than anywhere else outside of China.

The virus was first confirmed in the country on Jan. 20 when a 35-year-old Chinese woman who flew from Wuhan, China to Incheon international airport, which serves Seoul, was isolated upon entry into the country. In the four weeks following the incident, South Korea managed to avoid a major outbreak with only 30 people contracting the virus, despite many interactions between those later confirmed as being sick and hundreds more people being identified as contacts of the sick patients.

This changed with the emergence of “Patient 31.”

South Korea has announced hundreds of new coronavirus cases in the space of only a few days and raised its infectious disease alert to the highest level. The surge in cases has centred around two main clusters from a church in Daegu city and a nearby hospital. The new outbreak has pushed South Korea’s tally of confirmed cases much higher than anywhere else outside of China.

The virus was first confirmed in the country on Jan. 20 when a 35-year-old Chinese woman who flew from Wuhan, China to Incheon international airport, which serves Seoul, was isolated upon entry into the country. In the four weeks following the incident, South Korea managed to avoid a major outbreak with only 30 people contracting the virus, despite many interactions between those later confirmed as being sick and hundreds more people being identified as contacts of the sick patients.

This changed with the emergence of “Patient 31.”

 

Patient 31

It’s not clear where Patient 31 became infected with the virus, but in the days before her diagnosis, she travelled to crowded spots in Daegu, as well as in the capital Seoul. On February 6 she was in a minor traffic accident in Daegu, and checked herself into an Oriental medicine hospital. While at that hospital, she attended services at the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, on February 9 and again on February 16.

In between those visits, on February 15, doctors at the hospital said they first suggested she be tested for the coronavirus, as she had a high fever. Instead, the woman went to a buffet lunch with a friend at a hotel. In an interview with local newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, the woman denied that doctors had advised her to be tested. As her symptoms worsened, however, doctors say they once again advised her to be tested. On February 17, she finally went to another hospital for the test. The next day, health authorities announced she was the country’s 31st confirmed case. In only a matter of days, those numbers had soared as hundreds of people at the Shincheonji Church and surrounding areas tested positive.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (KCDC) said on Saturday they had obtained a list of 9,300 people who had attended those two Shincheonji church services, around 1,200 of whom had complained of flu-like symptoms. Hundreds of cases have now been confirmed there.

A second major cluster emerged from a nearby hospital in Cheongdo, a county close to Daegu. Authorities are investigating links between the church in Daegu and a funeral service at the hospital, which a number of church members attended from January 31-February 2. If confirmed, it means Patient 31 could be linked to both clusters. Between Daegu and Cheongdo county, the areas account for around 80 percent of the cases in the entire country.

Authorities are still investigating how Patient 31 contracted the virus, having no recent record of overseas travel or earlier known contact with other confirmed cases.

Cases by cluster as of March 2

Almost all major cities and provinces have now reported some infections. However, Daegu, where the church is located, and nearby Gyeongbuk, where the hospital is located, have by far the most cases. Seoul, a metropolitan area of more than 25 million people, has only a small portion.

Cases by region as of March 2

“The coronavirus is more contagious and spreads quickly during the early stage of the outbreak, and therefore preemptive measures are needed considering a possibility that the virus could develop to a nationwide spread from a community spread,” health minister Park Neung-hoo told a news conference.

“We believe the next week to 10 days will be crucial to determining how far the coronavirus spreads.”

Sources: Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (KCDC); Reuters.
By Marco Hernandez, Simon Scarr and Manas Sharma

 

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