Infections originating from smaller churches in the Seoul metro region are resurging to pose another obstacle on health officials’ quarantine efforts and cast dark clouds on the third-phase school reopening from Wednesday.
Korea reported 38 new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, including 36 local infections, bringing the total to 11,541, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. All of the new domestic cases were reported in Seoul and the western port of Incheon, and many of them were related to churches in the greater Seoul area.
One more patient died, raising the death toll to 272. A total of 10,446 patients have been recovered, up 24 from a day earlier, with 823 under treatment. The nation, with a population of 50 million, has tested 939,851 people since Jan. 3.
Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo said Tuesday that people who come in contact with many others while working at religious facilities, medical institutions, and nursing homes should refrain from attending small group meetings and comply with the quarantine rules.
“Infections at small group meetings do not end up small-scale infections,” Park said. “Through small religious meetings, such as pastors’ gatherings, and the get-together of Bible study groups, various religious facilities are exposed to infections simultaneously, leading to far larger mass infections. That’s why related people should be extra cautious.”
The public health authorities and local governments are working out ways to prevent further spread of new coronavirus from churches. Still, they are finding it difficult to control small meetings among closely-knit church members.
Some health officials said they are aware of possible criticism about excessive administrative intervention if they focus only on quarantine activities. However, the health authorities have made a strong hint that they would have to interfere if religious communities, mainly Christian churches, do not follow the preventive guidelines voluntarily.
Infectious diseases experts also called for tightening the reins in the next few weeks, pointing out that if the religious meetings continue like now, it will be hard to sever community spreads.
In February, the nation saw a sharp rise in virus cases related to church services of a minor Christian sect in Daegu, some 250 km southeast of Seoul, once the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak.
The church-tied cluster infections came as about an additional 1.78 million elementary, middle, and high school students will attend schools. In addition to 2.81 million students who have already been taking classes in schools, the number of students attending school will increase to 4.59 million, or 77 percent of total elementary and secondary school students in the nation.
However, 534 schools, 99 percent of which are located in the greater Seoul area, have decided to suspend the attendance of students for fear of outbreaks after finding confirmed cases among their students or other risky signs.
While presiding over a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun reiterated his calls for the general public to cooperate to the government’s anti-virus fight for some more time. “Although afraid, we cannot stop our march back to normal life,” Chung said.
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