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New nightclub-related coronavirus cases alarm South Korea

New nightclub-related coronavirus cases alarm South Korea
South Korea is trying to test thousands of nightclub visitors in Seoul to contain a new COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, May 13 (UPI) -- Officials in South Korea said Wednesday several new nightclub-related cases of COVID-19 have emerged and thousands of potentially exposed people have yet to be tested.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 26 new cases were recorded Tuesday, with 18 traced to clubs and bars in Seoul's multicultural Itaewon neighborhood. An additional eight cases were reported by noon Wednesday, bringing the total related to the clubs to 119.

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Health officials were placed on high alert last week when a 29-year-old clubgoer tested positive for COVID-19 after having visited five Itaewon clubs, potentially exposing thousands. Testing so far has confirmed 76 patients who attended the Itaewon clubs and 43 who were infected through secondary transmission.

Health officials stressed that it's urgent for anyone who may have been exposed to get tested immediately.

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"If people hesitate [to get tested], we will have more damage as the virus will lead to secondary and even tertiary infections," Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the KCDC, said at a press briefing Wednesday. "We would like to identify patients at an early stage through voluntary participation in the screening process as this is the most effective method."

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Authorities urge anyone who visited clubs in Itaewon from April 24 through May 6 to get tested regardless of symptoms.

More than 22,000 have been tested since the Itaewon outbreak but thousands have not been identified, officials said. Investigators are using cellphone data, credit card records and CCTV cameras to track down club visitors.

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One complication to testing is the affected venues cater to an LGBT audience, which has led to a hesitation by some to come forward. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community continues to face discrimination in South Korea and a backlash against the clubgoers has emerged online and on social media.

"There are still many refraining from getting tested because they are concerned about discrimination and criticism," Jung said. "We would urge the public to refrain from discrimination and remind people that this hinders our quarantine efforts."

Officials are attempting to attract more participation by making testing anonymous nationwide. Jung said Wednesday the government will also revise its guidelines on releasing public information related to new COVID-19 cases to allow for greater privacy.

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The Seoul city government began anonymous testing on Monday, requiring only a phone number, and has expanded the number of screening locations in the Itaewon area, including new walk-through clinics.

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Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said Wednesday the measures have been effective, noting that daily demand for testing has increased by six to 10 times this week, with more than 8,300 tests administered Wednesday alone.

"This is proof that anonymous tests are having a great effect on eliciting spontaneous testing," Park said at a press briefing Wednesday.

Park also cautioned that other nightlife locations in Itaewon have experienced transmissions without an established link with the initial 29-year-old clubgoer, meaning the outbreak could be more widespread than initially believed.

"Another confirmed case was found in an additional club," Park said. "The epidemiological investigation is still going on, but until now it has been confirmed that there is no overlap with the first clubber."

Local governments have taken additional measures to contain the outbreak. Last weekend, Seoul ordered clubs closed until further notice and several other municipalities followed suit. Seoul also announced Wednesday that riders on subways during rush hour will be required to wear face masks.

Schools nationwide had been scheduled to start reopening on Wednesday but the government pushed the start date back by a week. Officials said, however, they won't roll back relaxed social distancing rules that took effect last week.

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Vice health minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters Wednesday the loosened guidelines will remain as long as new cases stay under 50 per day and officials can trace 95 percent of infections.

The total number of COVID-19 cases in South Korea rose to just under 11,000 on Wednesday and the death toll increased by one to 259.

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