The Korean health authorities had fared relatively well in stemming the spread of the new coronavirus by keeping confirmed patients to about 30 with no severe cases among them.
That ended Tuesday when the 31st patient was confirmed in the southwestern region for the first time. The 61-year-old woman reportedly refused to take the virus test twice despite showing symptoms of high fever and cough. She attended the service of her church for two consecutive Sundays, on Feb. 9 and 16, and is believed to have contacted 1,160 people and infected more than 40 people.
|The Daegu chapel of the Shincheonji Church is emerging as the alleged hotbed of the new coronavirus outbreak.|
Now the public attention is on her church -- the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. The health authorities believe that out of the 156 confirmed cases as of Friday afternoon, 98 were related to the church in one way or another.
“A mass outbreak can characterize the current coronavirus situation in Korea because of a single exposure,” said Jung Eun-kyeong, head of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “We are investigating where the church has been infected. However, the cause is clear in that the infection is spreading based on a certain link.”
Jung was echoing the remark of Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-ho, who said, “We are at an early stage of community spread with a clear cause of spread centering on a specific group.”
Some experts pointed out the reasons why spreading increased explosively.
Shincheonji Church members sit on the floor close to each other and respond to the preachers' speech by saying amen loudly and frequently. The infection would have been easier to spread. Corona 19 virus spreads mainly through the droplet.
Another reason is that the Shincheonji Church is not defined as a multi-use facility. Hospitals and churches are vulnerable places in which infections occur quickly. During the 2005 MERS outbreak, measures were taken to prevent infection. However, there is no preparation for the multi-use facility at this point.
"The place designated as multi-use facilities such as theaters is inspected for ventilation and evacuation routes, but the church is not designated for multi-use facilities," said the National Cancer Center Professor Ki Mo-ran.
Similar events happened in other countries as well. More than 20 cases occurred in the Assembly of God, and six patients from The Life Church and Missions Singapore.
Lee Man-hee, the founder of the Shincheonji Church, expressed his views for the first time on the current outbreak. In a “special letter” to believers, Lee said, “The ongoing disease accident is the devil’s act to prevent rapid growth of the Shincheonji Church.”
The church founder went on to say, “Let’s fortify our faith further. We can win.” He then asked believers to avoid gathering for the first time and conduct propagation and education through telecommunication. “You should actively cooperate with the instruction of the government. This is our job.”
In a related development, Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung ordered Shincheonji Church to close all the churches in the province temporarily. Provincial officials estimate there are 32,000 believers and 17 related facilities in the province. Nationwide, the church members may total 230,000, according to the province’s interim estimation.
The health authorities will conduct an epidemic investigation on 9,000 Shincheonji Church members in Daegu and Gyeonggi Province. Currently, information on only about half of them has been secured.
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