SEOUL • A little-known sect led by a pastor who pokes eyes to heal is at the centre of a Covid-19 outbreak in South Korea, as the country reported a new daily record of 4,116 cases and battles a spike in serious cases straining hospitals.
In a tiny church in a town of 427 residents in Cheonan city, south of the capital Seoul, at least 241 people linked to the religious community have tested positive for coronavirus, an official said yesterday.
"We believe the scale of the outbreak is large," the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said in a statement.
About 90 per cent of the religious group was unvaccinated and the majority were in close contact through communal living.
Many members of the congregation were in their 60s and above and were unvaccinated, the official said. Just 17 out of the 241 confirmed cases had been vaccinated.
The official indicated that the churchgoers' beliefs had most likely led them to not get vaccinated. He added that the town had been put under a lockdown.
The KDCA said it was not possible to determine precisely why such a large number were unvaccinated, as the elderly and people with underlying conditions were not banned from inoculation.
The church opened in the early 1990s and has since become larger, with communal living facilities of its own.
The religion is not officially registered as a sect, but the pastor is known for performing a ritual act known as the "imposition of hands on eyes", where he pokes two eyes to rid people of "secular desire", Mr Jung Youn-seok, the head of a cult information resources think-tank, told Reuters.
"Such acts are extremely dangerous and non-biblical. It is outright banned in Korean Christianity," Mr Jung said, adding that the pastor's mother was a powerful figure who was ousted from the Christian community in the 1990s for practising identical rituals.
Although the outbreak is a small portion of the national total, it is an example of a cluster with a high concentration of cases.
South Korea this month switched to a "living with Covid-19" plan aimed at lifting rigid distancing rules and ultimately reopening after reaching vaccination goals last month. Since then, there has been a sharp rise in cases, with a fresh daily record number of infections on Tuesday.
Singapore has entered a vaccinated travel lane arrangement with South Korea that has seen 4,959 travellers from the country visit the Republic since Nov 15.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a Covid-19 response meeting yesterday that looking at the metropolitan Seoul area alone, the situation is critical enough to impose an emergency plan at any time.
He called on the health authorities to classify patients based on the severity of their symptoms and offer self-treatment options for mild or asymptomatic cases.
Less than 20 per cent of cases were treating themselves at home last week, Mr Kim said.
The KDCA had said an emergency plan may be imposed if and when nationwide intensive care bed capacity utilisation surpasses 75 per cent. Alternatively, measures may be taken after a risk assessment reviewing medical response shortfalls, a surge in the number of elderly patients and uptake in booster shots.
Hospitals were treating 586 severe Covid-19 patients as at Tuesday midnight, rapidly filling up limited hospital beds for serious and critical cases.
More than 85 per cent of them were aged 60 or above, KDCA data showed. Mr Son Young-rae, a senior Health Ministry official, said 71 per cent of beds in intensive care units were filled up nationwide and 83.7 per cent in the capital and neighbouring areas alone. He said the ministry was making efforts to raise bed capacity.
Hundreds were still waiting for their beds. Despite the increase in the hospitalisation rate, the country's mortality rate remains relatively low at 0.79 per cent. South Korea has seen 425,065 infections, with 3,363 deaths.