S. Korea to quarantine passengers from Europe, new virus cases dip below 100 again

March 20, 2020

 South Korea recorded fewer than 100 new daily virus cases again on Friday, but health authorities remained on high alert over new cluster infections and imported cases. From Sunday, all passengers from Europe for long-term stay will face a 14-day quarantine regardless of symptoms.

The 87 new cases, which were detected Thursday, brought the nation’s total number of infections to 8,652, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). The daily infection rate has been in double digits this week, except for the 152 new cases reported Wednesday.

The agency said 94 people, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses, died in South Korea from the respiratory virus that emerged in China late last year.

Eight more fatalities were reported on Friday in Daegu and its surrounding North Gyeonsang Province, though they have not been included in the KCDC’s official death toll.

The KCDC said 60 virus patients are in critical condition.

In South Korea, the virus has preyed on the elderly and already sick people.

The mortality rate stood at 1.09 percent as of Thursday, according to the KCDC. For those aged 80 and above, the fatality rate was 10.03 percent.

About 60 percent of confirmed cases have been linked to a branch of the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, which has a population of 2.5 million and is the country’s fourth-largest city.

The pace of daily new infections has shown marked signs of slowing since the second week of this month as health authorities completed extensive testing of 210,000 Shincheonji followers at the center of the rapid spread.

But the authorities are still on high alert over new clusters of infections, including at a call center in Seoul’s Guro district and Protestant churches in Gyeonggi Province.

Of the 87 new cases, 34 are in Daegu and 13 are in North Gyeongsang, the KCDC said. The total number of confirmed cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the two epicenters of the virus outbreak here, stood at 6,275 and 1,203, respectively.

Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul and Incheon, saw their new daily infections rise by 35 to 644 on Thursday.

Seoul’s confirmed cases rose by 17 to 299, with at least 91 cases linked to the call center in Guro Ward and another 20 cases linked to a Protestant church and an internet cafe in Dongdaemun Ward.

Incheon’s cases rose by four to 36, with 19 cases linked to the Guro call center. Gyeonggi Province saw confirmed cases climb by 14 to 309, with 60 cases linked to a church in Seongnam and another 36 cases tied to the Guro call center.

Clusters of infections accounted for 80.6 percent of the total confirmed cases as of Friday, meaning that people can contract the virus if they are in a close environment.

Mass transmissions were reported on Friday at two nursing hospitals in the country’s southeastern area.

A total of 57 people have been infected over the past three days at a nursing hospital in Daegu, including 47 new cases confirmed on Friday. Of them, an 82-year-old woman has died, according to city officials.

Later in the day, 32 additional COVID-19 cases were confirmed at another nursing hospital in Gyeongsan, a nearby city in North Gyeongsang Province, a day after one of its employees was found to have contracted the flu-like disease.

Making it harder for health authorities to contain the spread of the virus, the number of imported virus cases rose by one to 17 on Thursday. In addition to the confirmed cases of imported infection, 86 infections, including 50 suspected cases that may be imported from Europe, are suspected to have originated overseas.

On Friday two persons who arrived from the U.S., and another two from the Philippines, were confirmed to be infected.

Starting Sunday, South Korea will require all returnees from European nations to get tested for the virus, according to Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official who is in charge of containment measures.

The stricter measures came a day after South Korea tightened border checks for all people coming from abroad.

If a person arrives in South Korea from Europe for a long-term stay, he or she will be required to self-isolate at home for two weeks. If the person has no home in South Korea, they will be sent to an isolation facility, Yoon said.

Even if a returnee from Europe tests negative for the virus, the returnee will be required to self-isolate for two weeks, Yoon said.

If a foreigner arrives in South Korea from Europe for a short-term stay, health authorities will check his or her health condition on a daily basis by telephone.

Yoon said health authorities are considering expanding such measures to passengers from the United States and other Asian countries. The Korean government will pay the cost of their quarantine, Yoon said.

Anyone, Korean national or foreigner, who violates the rules on self-isolation will be punished under Korean law, Yoon said.

In South Korea, a person will face a fine of up to 3 million won (US$2,387) if the person violates the rules on self-isolation.

KCDC Director-General Jeong Eun-kyeong told reporters that about 5 percent of the people who recently arrived from Europe has tested positive for the virus, in a sign that local transmission may have occurred among wider communities there.

Jeong renewed calls for people to delay or cancel non-essential overseas travel.

She also reminded people that personal hygiene and social distancing practices are effective measures to prevent infection.

Since raising the virus alert level to “red,” the highest level, on Feb. 23, health authorities have focused on halting the spread of the virus in Daegu and North Gyeongsang.

The World Health Organization declared last week that the global coronavirus crisis is a pandemic, as the virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica.

South Korea had released a total of 2,233 fully recovered novel coronavirus patients from hospitals as of Thursday, up 286 from a day earlier, the KCDC said.

The number of daily cured people exceeded the number of daily new infections in South Korea last week for the first time since Jan. 20, when the virus was first detected on South Korean soil.

The number of people being checked for the virus and under quarantine came to 15,525 as of Thursday, down 379 from the day before, the KCDC said. The country has tested a total of 316,664 suspected cases, with 292,487 testing negative.