S. Korea reports 341 cases connected to infection clusters at facilities run by religious organization

Posted on : 2021-01-28 19:01 KST Modified on : 2021-01-28 19:01 KST
Authorites unlikely to relax social distancing regimen
International students from China arrive at Incheon International Airport in March 2020. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)
International students from China arrive at Incheon International Airport in March 2020. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)

As of Jan. 27, over 500 people during a 10-day period have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in connection with infection clusters at unauthorized educational institutions affiliated with the International Mission (IM), a religious organization.

The organization operates 40 facilities in 11 cities and provinces nationwide, which raises the possibility of transmissions rippling through the community.

South Korea’s third wave of COVID-19 may be gaining new momentum just as it seemed to be dying down. This makes it unlikely that authorities will announce a downgrade in the social distancing regimen during their briefing on Jan. 29.

South Korea reported 559 new cases of COVID-19 on Jan. 27. It was the first time since Jan. 17 (520 new cases) that the daily caseload exceeded 500.

The larger number was due in part to 110 patients being diagnosed in a single day at the IM’s TCS International School in Gwangju. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) explained that as of Jan. 27, 332 cases had been confirmed in Daejeon, Gwangju, and Gyeonggi Province in infection clusters connected with the IM.

Ulsan and South Gyeongsang Province respectively reported three and nine cases, bringing the cluster’s cumulative total to at least 341.

The IM operates 23 unauthorized educational facilities and 17 research centers in 11 cities and provinces. As of Jan. 27, disease control authorities had tested over 80% of the 841 people registered with the 23 facilities. Authorities are also currently investigating connections between individual facilities.

“While we haven’t seen reports of a ripple effect in transmissions throughout local communities, there is the possibility of additional clusters emerging,” said Park Young-joon, director of the KDCA epidemiological analysis team.

This new development is likely to impact the KDCA’s briefing on Jan. 29, when it’s expected to announce an update in the country’s social distancing system.

The average daily caseload over the week from Jan. 21 to 27 amounted to 388.7 patients per day, or nearly 20 more than the 369 calculated the day before.

Resurgence of daily cases

As the number inches back up toward 400-500 cases per day nationwide — one of the criteria for imposing Level 2.5 social distancing — lowering the distancing level will be difficult. Even without the IM cluster factoring in, the steady occurrence of daily cases in the range of 300 to 400 is burdensome enough.

“We’re still up to our ears in cases [besides the infections at unauthorized educational facilities] where [the virus] is being transmitted from latent patients in the community — especially those with mild to no symptoms — to their family members, co-workers, and close contacts,” Park explained.

The same day, the government belatedly announced disease prevention guidelines for unauthorized educational institutions run by religious groups. To date, such institutions had fallen into a blind spot for disease control regulations, as they are not classified as public schools, after-school academies, or religious facilities.

In the future, institutions where students reside and take classes throughout the day while not attending a regular school will be subject to similar disease control regulations as dormitory-based academies. In addition to facing limits of one person per eight square meters of approved facility space, they will have to abide by rules including pre-intake testing and bans on outside activities.

“Commuter-based” facilities that provide additional classes to students who are also attending a regular school will be subject to the same disease prevention rules as religious institutions. These include prohibitions on group dining, overnight stays, and all in-person activities besides religious services, such as studies and small group meetings. Attendance of religious services will be restricted to 10% of capacity for institutions in the Seoul Capital Area (SCA) and to 20% outside of the SCA.

By Suh Hye-mi, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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