Missionary school emerging as new Covid-19 hotbed in South Korea

South Korea reported 524 cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, raising the total to 70,728. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - A missionary school that is emerging as a new hotbed for Covid-19 infections in South Korea is now under fire for obstructing health officials who are struggling to contact all recent visitors to go for testing.

More than 700 cases were traced to the BTJ Centre for All Nations in Sangju city, 270km south-east of Seoul, as on Friday (Jan 15).

It is feared the number could spike, leading to a mass outbreak, complicating the government's anti-virus efforts that have finally brought daily infection figures down to 500 or so from a record high of 1,241 last month.

South Korea reported 513 cases of Covid-19 on Friday, raising its total to 71,241. The death toll stood at 1,217.

Of the 3,000 people confirmed to have visited BTJ between Nov 27 and Dec 27 last year, 1,138, or 37.9 per cent, have not gone for testing yet.

Health officials said many of them remain uncontactable, while some refused to get tested.

Founded in 2014, BTJ - short for Back To Jerusalem - is described as a "radical" Protestant school that offers lessons on evangelism and healing, among other topics.

Two BTJ officials are being investigated for failing to cooperate with government orders to quickly provide a list of 500 or so people who attended a major event held on Nov 27 and 28 that allowed infections to spread beyond the school.

Health officials had warned earlier this week that BTJ's "uncooperative attitude could cause a significant amount of damage to society".

Sixteen new cases were traced to BTJ as of yesterday, raising the total to 729. The first case was detected on Dec 3.

About 30 per cent of the patients had visited BTJ personally. They then spread the virus to some 500 people living in nine other regions, including Seoul.

Port city Pohang, about 140km south-east of Sangju, has reported 49 cases related to BTJ so far.

Central city Cheongju has confirmed 43 such cases and is seeking to punish two residents who defied administrative orders to get tested by Jan 14. They can be fined up to 2 million won (S$2,415) as a result.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun warned on Thursday of strong measures against those obstructing government anti-virus measures, noting that the spread of infections traced back to BTJ is "alarming".

"The government will not tolerate or condone irrational behaviour, such as interfering with epidemiological investigations or refusing to go for testing, that blatantly threaten people's lives and public safety," he said during an inter-agency meeting.

BTJ apparently held numerous gatherings late last year that drew more participants than it was allowed to have under tightened social distancing rules. Under Level 2, for instance, religious events were allowed to fill only 20 per cent of seats.

Officials said 13 per cent of those who went for testing turned out positive - about 10 times higher than the national average.

This is worrying as the rate is similar to two previous major outbreaks linked to churches - the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu city last February and the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul last August.

Shincheonji has accounted for 5,214 cases while Sarang had 1,173.

Shincheonji was accused of hindering contact tracing efforts by omitting names of members and not declaring all their facilities, although its leaders insisted they were cooperative.

The authorities have warned that there will be stiff penalties for people who flout antivirus rules.

Police data showed that more than 400 offenders have been caught since early December, nearly half of them were owners of nightlife establishments.

Another 77 people were nabbed for gathering in groups of more than four people, a rule imposed on Dec 23. Offenders can be fined up to three million won.

Meanwhile, speculation is rife that the government will extend Level 2.5 social distancing measures in place until Jan 17 in Seoul and greater Seoul, while easing some restrictions on businesses, such as allowing cafes to resume dine-in services.

A ban on social gatherings of more than four people - which is said to be effective in slowing down infections - may also be extended, perhaps until the Lunar New Year (Feb 11-14) holidays are over.

Officials are due to discuss and make an announcement on Saturday.

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