SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea health authorities said on Wednesday they had no immediate plans to reinstate strict social distancing rules despite a fresh coronavirus outbreak in the capital of Seoul.
Officials have scrambled to trace and test thousands of people over the past week after a cluster of new infections linked to nightclubs and bars in Seoul’s Itaewon district raised fears of a second wave outbreak.
Officials have linked at least 119 cases of COVID-19 to the night spots, which had just reopened as part of the country’s move to ease lockdown measures to jumpstart its struggling economy. Eleven of the 119 patients are 19 years old or younger.
Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said bringing back the social distancing rules was unlikely as long as the daily number of new cases remained below 50 and officials were able to trace 95% of all infections.
“For now, we will still monitor how the current transmissions go and review whether we should reconsider our distancing policy,” Kim told a media briefing.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC)reported 26 new cases as of midnight Tuesday, with 21 tied to the Seoul nightclub outbreak. That was slightly lower than levels reported in the previous two days and brought the national tally to 10,962, including 259 deaths.
The Itaewon outbreak prompted officials to re-shutter some nightclubs and bars as well as delay the planned reopening of schools by a week, but the government has stood by its decision to ease broader restrictions by reopening offices, public facilities and sports centres.
Seoul city officials did introduce a new policy requiring people to wear protective face masks during peak hours on the subway from Wednesday.
South Korea’s experience underscores the need for long-term efforts to prevent new outbreaks, said John Fleming, the Head of IFRC’s Asia Pacific Health Unit.
“We need to remain vigilant for new outbreaks in countries that have flattened the curve, like South Korea,” he told Reuters. “It’s easy to get complacent when restrictions ease off.”
More than 22,000 people have been tested since the nightclub cluster was first revealed last week, Seoul mayor Park Won-soon told a media briefing. Cellphone data was used to identify and locate thousands of them.
More than 1,200 of the people tested were foreigners, Park said, prompting the city to send out automated text messages in English asking people to be tested.
The confirmed infections include co-workers, family members and students of the people who had been in the clubs.
Park expressed concern the young, mobile demographic of most of the infected could expand the outbreak.
“This is very worrisome,” he said.
Authorities in Incheon, a city west of Seoul, said they would pursue a criminal complaint against one infected clubgoer who they said had not disclosed to officials that he worked at a private school.
Investigators traced the man’s movements using his cellphone data and determined that he worked at a school where five students and one instructor have since been confirmed to be infected. A student privately tutored by the man and the student’s mother also tested positive, according to Incheon city officials.
“If there are more cases where people give inaccurate accounts, the government cannot take proactive measures, we can’t prevent the spread of secondary and tertiary infections, and our entire society can fall back into danger,” Kim said.
The KCDC is still trying to locate about 3,000 of the 5,517 who had visited nine Itaewon clubs, for which it secured credit card transactions data involving some 1,800 people, director Jeong Eun-kyeong said.
They are also carrying out epidemiological surveys on other suspected areas, including two bars in Hongdae and Sinchon, both popular hangout spots for youngsters, she said.
“The biggest problem with COVID-19 is its silent transmission,” Jeong told a briefing. “Nearly 30% of the new patients are in their 20s who are very active and carry greater risks of infecting others even when they’re not showing any symptoms.”
Reporting by Sangmi Cha, Hyonhee Shin, and Josh Smith; Editing by Jane Wardell & Simon Cameron-Moore