World News

South Korea probes virus outbreak in apartment block, urges work from home

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea was investigating on Thursday a new coronavirus outbreak among roughly 28 people in an apartment block in Seoul, the capital, as it reported the biggest daily rise in infections since March.

A woman wearing a protective face mask takes a selfie in front of floodometer, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, August 27, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

City officials planned to test 500 residents at a temporary site in front of the block and sent a team of specialists to investigate how people on five different floors got infected, one of the officials said.

About 28 of the 436 tested proved to have the virus, with eight of them living in apartments right above one another, the official said.

“The Seoul city is conducting a first on-site investigation,” said Park Yoo-mi, a general director of the city government.

Experts in areas from epidemiology to construction, as well as the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), have been drafted in to uncover the route of infection, she added.

“We are investigating all possible paths of infection, including the sewers, vents, and elevators.”

In July, the World Health Organization acknowledged the possibility of airborne transmission of the virus but stopped short of confirming it spreads through the air.

A study in China this year, however, found virus traces in the bathroom of a vacant flat above that of some infected tenants, suggesting the possibility of transmission as an aerosol through sewage pipes.

South Korea suffered a setback this month in its battle on the virus as a church outbreak spread to a political rally, despite earlier success in reining it in, compared to other nations.

The KCDC reported 441 new coronavirus infections as of Wednesday, for the highest daily tally since the first large outbreak early in March.

The virus was more likely to have spread through the elevators of the Seoul apartment block than its vents, said KCDC official Kwon Jun-wook.

“The possibility is not seen as high for the transmission route through the ventilation openings,” he told a separate news briefing, citing experts.

Earlier, authorities urged businesses to get employees to work from home, fearing the risk of outbreaks in crowded places, such as at a call centre in March and a logistics centre in June.

“Please carry out thorough checks of risk factors at workplaces,” said Health Minister Park Neung-hoo, citing call centres and logistics warehouses as a particular concern.

The new infections take South Korea’s tally to 18,706, with a death toll of 313. The August church outbreak led to 959 traced infections, Kwon said.

Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Ana Nicolaci da Costa