Coronavirus: South Korea reports 74 new cases, church cluster outbreak near Seoul

Pedestrians wearing masks are seen behind South Korean soldiers doing quarantine works in Daegu, South Korea, on March 15, 2020.
Pedestrians wearing masks are seen behind South Korean soldiers doing quarantine works in Daegu, South Korea, on March 15, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS/THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - South Korea recorded 74 new coronavirus infections on Monday (March 16), slightly lower than a day ago, as authorities reported a cluster outbreak near the capital involving 40 members of Grace River Church.

The new cases bring the country's total to 8,236, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

The KCDC also reported that 303 more patients had fully recovered and been released from care. A total of 1,137 people have so far been released after recovery.

South Korea has been experiencing a downward trend in new cases and the latest numbers are significantly lower than the peak of 909 cases reported on Feb 29 and slightly down from the 76 recorded on Sunday. Monday was the second day in a row that the number of new cases was below 100.

A total of 75 people have died, unchanged from the previous day.

Meantime, 40 members of Grace River Church in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, have been confirmed with the coronavirus infection. 

The first patient at the church was confirmed on March 9, followed by a couple on Friday. On Saturday, one woman was confirmed and on Sunday, the head pastor and his wife, both asymptomatic, were confirmed positive.

Only seven of the 135 people who had attended Sunday service together on March 8 were quarantined at home after the first case was confirmed, leading authorities to fear the start of a community spread. One of the patients worked at a community centre helping the elderly until Friday.

Tests of 106 of the 135 people showed 40 people were infected. Eight people are being retested.

This is the second highest number for a cluster infection in the area surrounding the capital, after a cluster infection was confirmed on March 8 at a call center in Guro-gu, Seoul. A total of 129 people have been confirmed with the infection in relation to the call center.

“If any member of the Grace River Church or family member has any symptoms of the coronavirus, we sincerely request that people self-report and be tested,” said Seongnam Mayor Eun Soo-mi in an emergency briefing on Monday.

“We also sincerely request once again that religious facilities in Seongnam cancel group gatherings and services,” she added. “We hope you understand that this is not a persecution of religion, but unavoidable safety measures for people in our city.”

An inspection of 225 small and medium-sized churches on March 13 and 14 by city officials found churchgoers not wearing masks, not maintaining social distance and barring officials from entering the church.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon also delivered a briefing on Monday, mentioning that churches still holding services on their premises are sources of contamination.

“Over 30 per cent of the churches in Seoul are still holding offline services. It is a reality that this is causing cluster infections. We once again ask strongly that churches convert to online service or refrain from holding services for a while,” said Mayor Park.

While most megachurches are holding online services instead, other megachurches holding on-site services and smaller-sized churches continuing to hold worship services and church retreats are emerging as sources of mass infection.

Thirty-four people were confirmed with Covid-19 in a cluster linked to Oncheon Church in Busan, where the first confirmed patient had attended a two-day church retreat with around 150 participants.

A similar case also occurred at Dongan Church in Seoul. Nine people have been confirmed, including six who attended a church retreat in which 123 people participated. One of those infected went to an internet cafe after the retreat, causing another 24 people to be infected.

Saengmeyoungsoo Church in Gyeonggi Province also had 15 infected members as of Monday morning, after an infected employee from the Guro-gu call centre attended the Sunday service on March 8. 

President Moon Jae-in on Monday called for stronger cooperation among local governments in the capital and surrounding regions, saying that the success of the country’s fight against Covid-19 hinged on the region.

“There remains the uncertainty that all the efforts and achievements could go back to the starting point if a large-scale cluster transmission occurs, or community transmission expands quickly in the capital region,” Mr Moon said at a meeting with heads of local governments in the region. He added that Seoul and Gyeonggi Province are pivotal in South Korea’s fight against the disease and that cooperation among local governments is critical.

South Korea on Monday also extended special quarantine measures to cover arrivals from Europe. Previously six countries from the continent -- Italy, France, Germany, Spain, the UK and the Netherlands -- were subject to tougher screening procedures.  Similar measures are also in place on arrivals from China, Japan, Iran, Hong Kong and Macau.

South Korean nationals and foreigners arriving from Europe are required to have their temperatures checked, declare whether they have respiratory symptoms and complete special quarantine documents, including giving their domestic address and phone number, at the airport to be cleared for entry. Passengers also have to download a mobile app to self-check and report their health condition every day for two weeks. 

“Given the global pandemic, we don’t see it as particularly meaningful to apply the special entry procedures on a specific country anymore,” said Health Minister Park Neung-hoo on Sunday.