SEOUL - All foreigners working in Gyeonggi province, which surrounds Seoul, have been told to be tested for Covid-19 as part of South Korea's efforts to curb the spread of the virus among migrant workers in the region.
An administrative order was issued on Monday (March 8) for all the 85,000 migrant workers in Gyeonggi to go for testing before March 22. If not, they can face fines up to three million won (S$3,550).
Gyeonggi Vice-Governor Lee Yong-chul said the order is meant to keep the virus from spreading to other communities in the region.
Some 1,747 foreigners living in South Korea have tested positive for the coronavirus since January, of whom 47.1 per cent live in Gyeonggi.
Migrant workers in the province are hired by some 25,000 companies and work mostly in factories, farms and construction sites.
Last month, 124 cases were traced to a factory in Namyangju, north-east of Seoul, which housed migrant workers in a small, cramped dormitory.
Another 151 cases were traced to the foreign community in Dongducheon, north of Seoul, after local authorities embarked on pre-emptive testing of foreigners last week to curb an emerging cluster.
The authorities have also been inspecting factories that hire many migrant workers, and areas frequented by them, to make sure quarantine rules are followed.
South Korea has urged all illegal immigrants in the country to go for free testing, promising that their identities will not be disclosed.
The Ministry of Justice will temporarily suspend a crackdown on overstayers, so they will not become a loophole in the country's fight against the pandemic.
The number of overstayers reached a high of 398,518 in June last year, up 8.7 per cent from the year before. They come from countries such as China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Nepal.
To encourage them to come forward for testing, the government promised they would not screen visas at test centres and require testers to submit only a phone number for registration and notification of test results.
South Korea on Monday reported 346 new cases of Covid-19 as small-cluster infections continued to grow.
This raised the total tally to 92,817, with the death toll standing at 1,642.
Health authorities have managed to bring the daily average down to the 300-500 range due to tightened social distancing measures, after hitting a record high of 1,241 cases on Christmas Day.
A ban on gatherings of more than four people has been extended to March 14 and a 10pm operating restriction remains on facilities such as gyms and indoor golf simulators. Restaurants and cafes must also close dine-in services at 10pm.
With the weather warming up, health authorities are urging people to continue to stay at home instead of going out to socialise.
Dr Jeong Eun-kyeong, head of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), said there are "growing risks" from students returning to school and people going on trips and meeting friends in spring.
"We will strengthen on-site inspections of entertainment facilities and large public facilities to ensure they are keeping up anti-virus efforts," she said during a briefing on Monday.
Meanwhile, over 316,000 people have been inoculated since South Korea rolled out its vaccination programme on Feb 26, with shots from AstraZeneca and Pfizer.
Foreigners in South Korea will also get free vaccination in due time, according to health authorities.
Some 3,900 people reported side effects so far, but most of them experienced mild symptoms such as headache, fever and muscle ache, and these go away within a few days.
Among the more serious reactions, 32 suffered severe allergy, five people had seizures and one went into anaphylactic shock.
Eleven people had died after vaccination, but Dr Jeong of KDCA said investigations so far found no causal links between the deaths and the vaccines.
She said all of them were patients at long-term care facilities with chronic illnesses.