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South Korea at 'crucial time' in COVID-19 fight as cases soar

South Korea at 'crucial time' in COVID-19 fight as cases soar
COVID-19 cases continue to rise in South Korea, with 297 new infections reported on Wednesday, the highest total since early March. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Aug. 19 (UPI) -- South Korea is facing its most serious COVID-19 outbreak since early March as cases continued to climb on Wednesday, with 297 new infections reported by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After seeing daily local infections dwindle to single digits earlier this month, South Korea has added almost 1,300 cases over the past six days, concentrated primarily in the greater Seoul area.

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Health authorities have tightened social distancing measures around Seoul and on Wednesday warned that the outbreak has the potential to rapidly spread across the country.

"If we fail to contain the virus at this point, we have a high risk of the virus spreading nationwide," Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said at a briefing. "This week will be a very crucial time in determining the future of the outbreak in the country."

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While transmissions have been tied to a variety of locations, including schools, restaurants and apartment complexes, the largest cluster is centered around the Sarang Jeil Presbyterian Church in northern Seoul, where 623 members had tested positive as of Wednesday afternoon.

About 3,700 members have been tested, but Kim said authorities are still working to track down some 400 churchgoers who have not come forward.

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The church, led by the Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, a right-wing critic of President Moon Jae-in's government, has been accused of impeding the investigation by providing false information on its gatherings and providing inaccurate membership lists to officials.

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Jun has tested positive for COVID-19, health officials said Monday.

Footage has circulated on South Korean social media in recent days of congregants yelling at and tussling with quarantine workers, while on Tuesday one church member with the virus fled from a hospital in Paju, north of Seoul. He was recaptured by authorities early Wednesday.

The government filed charges earlier this week against Jun for obstructing the investigation and for defying a self-isolation order by participating in a large rally in downtown Seoul on Saturday, where he gave a speech.

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Kim said Wednesday other members of the church were confirmed to have attended the anti-government rally on Saturday, as well as another large demonstration held in Seoul on Aug. 8, and urged anyone present at either event to come forward for testing. He added that many church members are in a high-risk group for suffering worst outcomes due to COVID-19, with some 40% over the age of 60.

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 more than 50 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 100 are prohibited under the rules.

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The restrictions mean that the public can no longer attend live sporting events, while public facilities and other high-risk locations such as nightlife venues also must shut down.

On Tuesday, the government banned all in-person church services until Aug. 30, and on Wednesday extended the Level 2 guidelines to Incheon, a city of 2.8 million west of Seoul that is home to the country's main international airport.

The total number of cases in South Korea rose to 16,058 on Wednesday, while COVID-19 deaths stood at 306, the KCDC reported.

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