South Korea tries to contain coronavirus outbreak in prison

An inmate infected with Covid-19 holds up a message reading 'save me' through a window at Dongbu Detention Center in Seoul, South Korea, Dec 29, 2020.
An inmate infected with Covid-19 holds up a message reading 'save me' through a window at Dongbu Detention Center in Seoul, South Korea, Dec 29, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korean authorities scrambled to contain a cluster of coronavirus infections in a Seoul prison as inmates waved signs through barred windows pleading for help.

There were 1,050 new cases nationally as of Tuesday midnight (Dec 29), the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Wednesday, bringing the total pandemic tally to 59,773 with 879 people having died.

A prison in southeastern Seoul had 771 inmates and 21 staff infected, bringing the total number of infections linked to the facility to 792, Yonhap news agency reported, citing the justice ministry.

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae on Tuesday visited the prison and ordered the separation of infected inmates from those who were not and the expansion of granting parole to exemplary prisoners, the ministry said in a statement.

Local media had displayed pictures of the inmates holding up signs reading, "Please save us." The KDCA had said an inmate with underlying conditions had died this week from Covid-19.

Authorities could further tighten social distancing rules this weekend as year-end travels increased the risk of more confirmed cases, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a government meeting.

"We have relatively low rate of confirmed cases to population, but about 40 per cent of the cumulative confirmed cases occurred in the past month," Chung said. "This wave of infections is becoming the biggest crisis."

Meanwhile, the US military will vaccinate South Korean troops serving under a joint command against the coronavirus, South Korea's defence ministry said on Wednesday.

The announcement comes after US Forces Korea (USFK) requested formal talks with the South Korean defence ministry over plans to inoculate South Korean personnel who serve with the United States Army.