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South Korea struggles to contain surging COVID-19 cases tied to churches

South Korean health officials warned that the country could be on the verge of a major outbreak of COVID-19 Monday as cases continued to surge in the Seoul metropolitan area. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
South Korean health officials warned that the country could be on the verge of a "major outbreak" of COVID-19 Monday as cases continued to surge in the Seoul metropolitan area. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Aug. 17 (UPI) -- South Korea continues to face its most serious COVID-19 outbreak since March as health officials reported 197 new infections, with a large number of cases tied to a conservative Christian church in Seoul whose pastor is an outspoken anti-government figure.

Monday's total marked the fourth day in a row of triple-digit cases, numbers South Korea hasn't seen in over five months. Most of the infections are concentrated in the capital city, Seoul, and neighboring Gyeonggi Province, home to roughly half of the country's 51 million people. On Sunday, the country recorded 279 new infections.

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The outbreak has been tied to clusters at several venues around the region, including churches, schools, restaurants and traditional markets.

In response, the government tightened social distancing guidelines in the Seoul metropolitan area on Saturday, moving to Level 2 on its three-tier scale. Indoor gatherings of 50 or more people and outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited under the rules.

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The restrictions also mean that the public can no longer attend live sporting events, while public facilities and other high-risk venues such as nightclubs and karaoke rooms will be closed. On Friday, Gyeonggi Province ordered churches to shut their doors for two weeks, while Seoul issued an order to churches restricting group events except for the main service.

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At a briefing on Monday, Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Jung Eun-kyeong said health officials believe that the rising cases are "the initial stage of a major outbreak."

She warned that unless the spread is brought under control quickly, "it could lead to a collapse in medical capacity."

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Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said Monday the government has assembled an emergency response team to help slow the spread of the virus in the Seoul area and urged citizens to avoid any unnecessary social gatherings and to return home immediately after work.

He said that the government would continue to tighten restrictions if cases do not come under control.

"If the upward trend of patients does not stabilize, we will further enhance our social distancing measures," Kim said at a press briefing.

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Among the new clusters are 131 cases tied to a church in Yongin, south of Seoul, and 42 cases traced to a Starbucks in Paju, north of Seoul.

However, the largest number of infections is connected to the Sarang Jeil Presbyterian Church in Seoul, where 319 cases have been confirmed, up from 70 a day earlier.

The church's right-wing pastor, the Rev. Jun Kwang-hun, 63, is a vocal critic of the administration of President Moon Jae-in, and health officials say he is obstructing their investigation into the outbreak.

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"We have discovered that the list of [Sarang Jeil] church members has some inaccuracies and there are difficulties for us in identifying members of the church," said Kim, who urged churchgoers to come forward for testing.

More than 4,000 church members have been ordered to self-isolate and Kim said around 2,000 have been tested.

The government is pressing charges against Jun for failing to provide complete membership records, as well as for defying a self-isolation order by participating in a large rally in downtown Seoul on Saturday.

Despite a city ban on large gatherings, thousands of conservative protesters, many of them elderly, joined an anti-government rally accusing Moon of being a "criminal" and a "communist" with policies that are playing into North Korea's hands.

Jun, who spoke at the rally, was indicted in March over allegations that he violated election law by urging his followers to vote for conservative candidates and for defaming Moon by calling him a spy for North Korea. He is free on bail while awaiting trial.

On Sunday, Moon issued a statement on social media criticizing churches that have flouted social distancing guidelines, saying that failing to follow public health rules is "an unforgivable act that threatens the lives of the people."

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Moon said the government will take "very decisive and strong measures," including "strictly restricting illegal activities that damage public welfare."

South Korea has been widely praised for its vigorous and effective response in containing COVID-19 after a major outbreak in February tied to a secretive Christian sect, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, in and around the southeastern city of Daegu.

The leader of that church, 89-year-old Lee Man-hee, was arrested earlier this month and indicted on Friday on charges of obstructing the government's anti-virus response by submitting false records of church membership.

Vice Health Minister Kim said Monday the current surge is similar to the outbreak in Daegu but called it "even more serious."

"As for Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, we had a large cluster infection but it was concentrated on a single group of people," he said. "Most of them were young and so the fatality rate was relatively low."

Kim said the infections around Seoul are more difficult to trace and have the potential to spread more rapidly.

"In the Seoul and Gyeonggi Province area, we are seeing cluster infections simultaneously and sporadically at various venues and we also have unidentified contacts through other venues and through demonstrations and rallies," he said. "It is a very grave situation."

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