SEOUL - South Korea's southern port city Busan is "gripped with virus fear" after the emergence of a Russian ship cluster, as the number of imported cases of the coronavirus in the country continued to grow.
Fifty-one new cases were reported on Wednesday (June 24), including 20 imported. This brings the total tally to 12,535, while the death toll remained at 281.
While there were no additions to a cluster of at least 16 infections among the crew of 21 on board a Russian-flagged cargo ship docked in Busan, the number of port workers and sailors who came into contact with the crew, as identified by health authorities, has grown to 211 - up from 176 the previous day.
Thirty-nine of them tested negative as of Wednesday afternoon.
Busan has so far reported 152 cases, including two new. This is low compared to Seoul's 1,241 cases.
Concern has grown over a potential spike in numbers in Busan in days ahead, while questions are raised over a possible loophole in virus screening procedures at ports.
The Russian ship was allowed to dock on Sunday after submitting quarantine documents electronically and quarantine officials did not board the vessel to conduct physical checks. Such checks are required only for ships arriving from high-risk countries, such as China, Italy and Iran.
The ship's operator was also found to have lied to Korean officials on Saturday when he said no one was ill. Three crew members were found with symptoms during a routine check on Sunday and 16 tested positive on Monday.
"Fears of the coronavirus epidemic are rapidly spreading among citizens in Busan," Yonhap news agency reported on Wednesday.
Busan-based online newspaper Civicnews cited angry residents venting against poor preventive measures, with one saying "it makes no sense to approve quarantine on paper".
Social media was also flooded with comments.
"What is happening in Busan right now? Why didn't they prevent it properly?" Twitter user minomizzz posted.
Another Twitter user, wiseman3201, questioned how the government officials could have been so careless, while nicheinmo asked for wrongdoers to be severely punished.
On Wednesday, Vice-Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said all Russian vessels will now be checked for signs of the virus before being allowed to dock in Busan.
He also warned that foreign ships that fail to report coronavirus symptoms among their crew before docking will face a fine of up to 5 million won (S$5,800), and that the government will press charges against shipping companies if their crew spread the virus to someone within South Korea after docking.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has also asked officials to be on full alert over infection risks at seaports and airports.
"This should be an opportunity to review our procedures to prevent the spread of the virus," he said.