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[News Focus] ‘COVID-19 stabilizing? Beware of massive infections in Seoul metropolitan area’

Kwak Sung-sun  Published 2020.03.16  15:06  Updated 2020.03.16 18:58

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- Experts call for stronger government interventions in next few weeks

Korea’s daily new cases of the new coronavirus have gradually come down to below 100 on Sunday, after peaking at 909 on Feb. 29.

As people have been feeling extraordinarily intense over the prolonged spread of the virus for almost two months, they are somewhat relieved by the sliding numbers of new cases.

However, healthcare experts warned that now is not the time to become complacent. Although new COVID-19 patients were on a slowing curb, sporadic infectious still occurred in cities across the nation. Recent community infections include a dance club in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province, a call center in Guro-gu, southwestern Seoul, and a video game club in Dongdaemun-gu, northeastern Seoul.

Also, experts said the government should prepare countermeasures against Europeans entering Korea, as the number of COVID-19 patients was spiking to the extent that Italy, Spain, France, and the U.K. have declared a national emergency.

Group infections continue from call center, internet café, hospital

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), 183 confirmed cases had been linked to group infections in Seoul as of Sunday. Seventy-six were related to the call center in Guro-gu, 24 to a church and an internet café in Dongdaemun-gu, 14 to Eunpyeong St. Mary’s Hospital, 13 to an apartment in Seongdong-gu, eastern Seoul, 10 in Jongno-gu, and seven to a fashion company in Jung-gu.

In Gyeonggi Province, there were 28 cases related to the Shincheonji religious group, 30 to the call center in Guro-gu, 19 to Bundang Jesaeng Hospital, 10 to a church in Suwon, and two to a sports center in Cheonan. In Incheon, 25 new cases on Sunday included 17 related to the call center and five who contacted confirmed patients.

In Seoul and its vicinity of Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, 375 cases were group infections.

If the nation fails to prevent second or third contractions from them within a week or two, the Seoul metropolitan area could become another COVID-19 epicenter, after Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, experts warned.

Kim Woo-ju, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University Guro Hospital, said new cases falling below 100 a day looked as if the situation was stabilizing. However, an analysis of detailed numbers showed that the nation was going back to the situation before the surge of confirmed cases from the Shincheonji Church, he said. As the Shincheonji members account for more than 60 percent of domestic confirmed cases, a daily adding of 100 new patients was just normal in the COVID-19 outbreak, Kim noted.

“Serial group infections are occurring from confirmed patients linked to the call center in Guro. We’ve been looking into Shincheonji cases only because the issue was so big. But I think other local communities are already having group infections, just as the call center showed,” he said.

So far, confirmed cases coming from a hospital, a nursing center, and a church were within the scope of disease control because they were in the same space and time, Kim went on to say. However, group infections at a call center, a karaoke room, or an internet parlor make it challenging to find epidemiological links, he said.

“If these patients spread unnoticed in local communities, they will cause group infections or make seniors and those with underlying diseases become severe patients and get confirmed with the virus infection through belated tests,” Kim said. “So, we should not only look at the number of new cases but in various aspects. We’ve already made mistakes twice by gauging the situation with the number of patients.”

A group infection recently occurred at Bundang Jesaeng Hospital in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province. The medical institution had been designated as a “public security hospital,” a facility that separates the treatment process of respiratory patients to prevent COVID-19 spread. (Photo from the hospital’s homepage)

‘If massive infections occur in Seoul, they will spiral out of control ’

Jung Ki-seok, a former KCDC director who is a professor at the Pulmonology Department at Hallym University Sacred Hospital, also warned a possibility of group infections in regions other than Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province.

“The outbreak at the Guro Call Center in Seoul seems to be growing, and we should look at this seriously. Experts had long worried that such a case could happen in many other regions,” Jung said. “If massive group infections occur in another region, the Seoul metropolitan area could suffer significant damage.”

He called on the government to identify the exact status of medical resources within the Seoul metropolitan area and brace for mega-group infections.

Professor Kim Woo-ju also raised concerns over the possibility of massive group infections and a crash of the healthcare system in the Seoul metropolitan area.

According to Kim, thousands of confirmed cases in a short time in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province have virtually destroyed the healthcare system, as other cities supplied medical workers and supplies, and general patients had to move to other cities to get treated.

“Imagine this happens in the Seoul metropolitan area. Who will help, and where do general patients go?” asked Kim. “The government should protect the Seoul metropolitan area from a crash of the healthcare system.”

‘Strong intervention needed for the next 1-2 weeks’

Healthcare experts also called for countermeasures against COVID-patients entering Korea from Europe, where the pandemic was rapidly spreading.

An increasing number of European countries are announcing a national emergency and putting travel restrictions.

Italy, the epicenter of COVID-19 in Europe, banned travel across the nation.

France also prohibited gatherings larger than a particular number of people and used a strong administrative force to mitigate the virus outbreak.

In the U.K., which runs National Health Service, the authorities expected that the pandemic would end when a 40 to 70 percent of the public are infected. The U.K. government recommended young and healthy people to stay at home for a rest if they have respiratory symptoms and seniors and those with underlying diseases to visit a hospital.

The Korean government is markedly aggressive in testing and treating COVID-19 but lukewarm in banning gatherings yet.

“Korean measures are not strong enough. For the next two weeks, we need tougher responses,” Professor Kim said. “The government should use strong orders, not recommendations, to stop large rallies or gatherings. Inside the country, it should use strict measures, and outside the country, it should lock up the entry (to prevent COVID-19 patients from entering).”

Professor Jung also said now is the best time for the government to announce more powerful countermeasures.

“Most people are scared of COVID-19, and schools have closed. People are practicing social distancing. Religious groups are shunning large gatherings,” Jung said. “The problem is when this alertness will fade. If people are relaxed again, new infections could still occur.”

Jung emphasized that the government should ban gatherings for the next one or two weeks. “It should not be recommendations but administrative orders. Korea has never ordered a ban on gatherings since the COVID-19 outbreak. As students don’t go to schools, now is the time to place the ban,” he said.

Jun Byung-yool, another ex-KCDC head and the dean of the Graduate School of Health Industry at CHA University, also noted the importance of disease control in vulnerable sites.

“An infectious disease could occur suddenly after a silent break. We don’t know when a case like the 31st confirmed patient could appear. So, we can’t say we have wrapped the situation,” Jun said. The 31st patient is known as “super-spreader,” a Shincheonji member who is thought to have caused the rapid increase in confirmed cases.

The government should monitor sites that have been regarded as vulnerable places, by designating a person responsible for infection control and being alert all the time, he added.

kss@docdocdoc.co.kr

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