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South Korea races to contain new COVID-19 outbreak tied to clubs

South Korea races to contain new COVID-19 outbreak tied to clubs
South Korea is facing a new outbreak of COVID-19 cases that are tied to Seoul nightclubs in the wake of relaxed social distancing guidelines, officials said. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, May 11 (UPI) -- South Korea is scrambling to get a new COVID-19 outbreak under control as cases mount connected to a patient who visited several Seoul nightlife venues at the beginning of May.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and prevention announced 35 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, the highest number of daily cases in over a month.

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Twenty-nine of the new patients were tied to the club-goer, a 29-year-old man who visited several bars and clubs in Seoul's multicultural Itaewon neighborhood on May 1, raising the total number of connected cases to 86. Of these, 63 were visitors to the venues and 23 were family members or acquaintances of those who attended.

Health officials said that this week will be crucial in tamping down the spread of the infection as they race to identify and test the thousands of people who may have been exposed.

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"We believe this week is crucial to our containment measures," KCDC Director Jung Eun-kyeong said at a press briefing Monday.

"The outbreak was among young people and many of them show no symptoms," she said. "However, they are actively engaging in everyday life, so there is a high risk of further spread of the infection. Considering the incubation period, we believe this week is the time for the virus to peak."

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Authorities are urging anyone who visited the nightlife venues in Itaewon from April 24 through May 6 to get tested regardless of symptoms.

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The affected venues cater to an LGBT audience, which has complicated the matter of tracking down visitors, officials acknowledged on Monday.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community continues to face discrimination in South Korea in public and in the workplace, and there is concern that some clubgoers have been hesitant to step forward as a backlash has emerged online and on social media.

Officials said that anonymity would be assured for anyone who came forward for testing.

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"Regardless of symptoms, we will protect your privacy when you take the tests," Jung said. "We ask the public to give encouragement and refrain from discrimination or hateful speech."

Clubs were required to keep logs recording the names and phone numbers of everyone who entered as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. However, the Seoul city government is still struggling to track down thousands of visitors, Mayor Park Won-soon said Monday.

Of more than 5,500 names recorded, the city has been able to contact around 2,400 people, with more than 3,000 still missing, Park said.

"That means they either deliberately avoided the call or gave false information," he said at a press briefing.

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The mayor added that Seoul would provide free and anonymous testing for the coronavirus and stressed that the next few days would be crucial in containing the outbreak from spreading throughout the rest of South Korea.

"It is a battle of speed from now on," Park said. "In the next two or three days, it will be a major challenge whether or not Seoul is penetrated. And if Seoul is penetrated, Korea is at risk.

"A moment's neglect can lead to an explosion of infection."

Authorities have said they will use additional data such as credit card records and CCTV to track down the club-goers who don't come forward voluntarily, while Park said the city would also request cellphone signal records from telecommunications companies.

The Seoul city government announced Sunday it will close nightlife venues indefinitely, and the neighboring city of Incheon and surrounding province of Gyeonggi followed suit.

The spike in new infections comes just as South Korea began a period of relaxed social distancing guidelines, which were enacted last week.

Before the new outbreak, the country had seen its rate of new patients decline to a trickle, with most infections coming from overseas arrivals. Places such as museums and recreational facilities have been allowed to open, while professional baseball and soccer returned last week to stadiums without fans.

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Schools were scheduled to start reopening on Wednesday, but education and health officials are discussing whether to push back the start in light of the new wave of cases.

On Monday, Seoul education superintendent Cho Hee-yeon recommended that schools postpone reopening for another week while deciding how to proceed.

"[I]f the current trend of concerns over a second wave of COVID-19 continues, I believe there is a need to review the school reopening schedule," he wrote in a Facebook post, according to news agency Yonhap.

The number of confirmed cases in South Korea rose to more than 10,900 on Monday.

World moves to reopen amid COVID-19 pandemic

Visitors wear face masks as they tour the Whitney Museum of American Art as it reopens on September 3. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

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