South Korea delays reopening of schools as fear grows over second wave of Covid-19 infections

The delayed school reopening came amid growing concern about the Itaewon cluster infection.
The delayed school reopening came amid growing concern about the Itaewon cluster infection.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - South Korea has delayed the reopening of schools by a week, as fears grow over a possible second wave of infections stemming from a new cluster traced to five bars and clubs in Itaewon, a nightlife district in Seoul.

The number of cases in the cluster has shot up to 94 as of Monday (May 11) evening. These include eight in the military, four foreigners, a nurse, and an 84-year-old grandmother.

This brings the total tally to over 10,900 cases, with 256 deaths.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Monday stressed the need for rapid mass testing to contain the latest cluster, adding that authorities have only managed to test less than half of the 5,517 people potentially exposed to the virus over a long weekend from Apr 30 to May 5.

Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention chief Jeong Eun-kyeong urged people who visited the clubs to go for testing regardless of whether they were symptomatic. This week will be “very crucial to minimise the impact of the spread of the virus”, she added.

Concern over the sudden spike in numbers after days of zero domestic infection has led more parents to sign a petition filed on the presidential Blue House website calling for a delay in the reopening of schools, which was slated to begin in phases from Wednesday (May 13) amid eased social distancing rules. The petition has drawn over 185,000 signatures.

The Education Ministry announced on Monday that the first batch of high school seniors will return to school May 20 instead, while the last batch will resume face-to-face lessons on June 8.

This is to “guarantee the safety of students,” Vice Minister of Education Park Baeg-beom said in a briefing.

Meanwhile, health officials are struggling to track down the people who visited the Itaewon clubs over the six-day long weekend.

Over 3,000 of them remain uncontactable. Clubbers are required to leave their contact details before entering a club, but it appears many left fake numbers.

The first case to emerge is a 29-year-old man living in Yongin city, south-east of Seoul, who went club-hopping with a friend in Itaewon on May 2 and tested positive on May 6. The clubs they visited are known to be gay bars.

As of noon Monday, the cluster had grown to 86 cases - 63 clubbers and 23 of their friends and family members. Another eight cases were reported by the Seoul city government later in the day, bringing the total to 94.

The capital city is the most affected with 59 cases, while the surrounding Gyeonggi province had 21 cases, and Incheon city, seven.

 
 
 
 

An 84-year-old woman living in Incheon tested positive on Monday. She was infected after having a meal with her Seoul-based grandson who caught the virus in Itaewon.

The military is on high alert after eight staff members were found to be infected. A staff sergeant working at the cyber command centre in Seoul is believed to have infected five colleagues after he caught the virus while clubbing in Itaewon on May 2.

An army captain stationed in Yongin, who also went clubbing in Itaewon, spread the virus to a colleague working in the same base.

Four foreigners, including two Frenchmen and their American housemate, have also tested positive. The trio went clubbing in university town Sinchon on two other nights over the long weekend.

Some of the infected clubbers were found to have visited a men-only sauna in Gangnam after a night of partying.

As concern grows over the extent of the spread, officials have expanded contact tracing efforts by tapping into CCTV footage and credit card data.

Businessman Gang Tae-hwan, 38, was shocked to get a call from the authorities last Friday asking if he visited one of the clubs, after he was found to have used his credit card at a convenience store nearby.

He told The Straits Times he is very worried about the situation and questioned why the government allowed clubs and bars to reopen before the social distancing campaign ended on May 5. 

“As the Korean proverb goes, it is too late to fix the barn after the cow runs away,” he said.