Aug 31 — 7 am — Church cluster in Daegu, and solidarity in distance
Infections: 19,699| Cleared: 14,903 | Under treatment: 4,473 | Deaths: 323
(As of Aug 30, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
A stronger version of Level 2 social distancing has been in force since Saturday in the Seoul Metropolitan Region (SMR) where over half the nation’s population resides. But it is too early to tell if the measures have made a significant impact. The number of daily new cases nationwide stayed around 300 this weekend, and the R number at 1.5. Overall, about 30% of the new outbreaks are in regions outside the SMR, many linked to Sarang Jeil Church and the August 15 rally, and others traced to people traveling around the country for their summer vacation. The director of the KCDC stated that the tracing capacity is being stretched to its limits, and asked the public to show solidarity by keeping apart from one another.
The Sarang Jeil Church and August 15 rally clusters keep growing each day through smaller secondary transmission clusters throughout the country. Many of these clusters are in churches and nursing homes, which means the patients tend to be in the older age groups. Of the 1035 patients that have been traced to Sarang Jeil Church, 223 are in their 50s and 422 are over the age of sixty. A total of 369 patients have been traced directly or indirectly to the August 15 rally. One secondary transmission cluster in Daegu Sarang Church resulted in 34 of the 103 church members becoming infected. Close to half of the church members had attended the August 15 rally, with 22 of those members subsequently testing positive. The city of Daegu is filing a suit against the church’s pastor who pushed on with on-site church gatherings in violation of the city’s order for them to stop. Because of this outbreak, Daegu has seen the highest number of new patients since April, which prompted the city to send out an emergency message late Saturday night announcing that all Protestant churches in Daegu are prohibited from holding on-site church services on Sunday.
Further clusters at churches, hospitals, and nursing homes unrelated to the above two major outbreaks continue to be identified. This means that over the past two-week period the number of patients needing intensive care has increased, from 13 to 70, of whom 60 patients are in their 60s, seven in their 50s, and three in their 40s. There are also numerous cases where care facility and hospital workers have transmitted the virus to other staff members and patients. The KCDC has asked the medical and nursing care staff to refrain from visiting cafes, restaurants, bars, and other such facilities.
Aug 28 — 7 pm — Level 2.5 effective August 30
Infections: 19,077| Cleared: 14,551 | Under treatment: 4,210 | Deaths: 316
(As of Aug 28, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
This afternoon the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters announced stronger Level 2 Social Distancing measures for Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi Province (Seoul Metropolitan Region or SMR), as well as Gwangju where a major outbreak is developing. The news media are calling this measure Level 2.5 because it will shut down thousands of businesses for eight days in the SMR from August 30 to September 6. This comes after pressure from many quarters to raise the alert level while there is still a chance. But given the economic shock that Level 3 measures would cause, the government wants to save them as the last hand to play if the situation gets even worse.
The city of Gwangju had already started implementing measures amounting to Level 3 from yesterday (August 27) to be effective until September 10. These measures include prohibiting operation of the twelve types of businesses designated as high-risk, plus theme parks, arcades and gaming facilities, water parks, religious facilities, theaters (musicals and plays), indoor fitness centers, casinos, race tracks, baseball and soccer fields, youth centers, senior centers, basement-level bath houses and saunas, basement-level multi-bang and DVD-bang (entertainment rooms), and day care centers. Small scale hagwon with less than 300 person capacity, kids’ cafes (indoor play areas for children and parents), and show houses can admit no more than ten visitors at a time.
In the SMR, the measure banning public gatherings of more than ten people will be extended for another two weeks until September 13. In addition to the measures already in effect—shutting down high-risk facilities and prohibiting on-site church services—the following significant changes will be added:
Restaurants and bakeries must admit visitors only between 5am and 9pm, though take-outs and deliveries are still possible beyond those hours.
Franchise cafes (which also includes cafe/bakeries) are prohibited from admitting customers and can only provide take outs and deliveries.
Indoor fitness centers must cease operations.
Study rooms and study cafes must cease operations.
Hagwons should operate online classes only. Small scale learning facilities admitting less than ten people at a time are exempt provided they take good attendance and follow hygiene guidelines.
Nursing homes and nursing care facilities should not admit visitors.
Public businesses must shift to at-home work as much as possible and private businesses are advised to do the same. Essential businesses and institutions dealing with crime, national security, international relations, fire safety, postal services, disease prevention, and the news media are exempt.
Aug 28 — 8 am — Is Level 2 having an impact in Seoul? And an update on the doctors’ strike.
Infections: 18,706| Cleared: 14,461 | Under treatment: 3,932 | Deaths: 313
(As of Aug 27, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Yesterday the number of new cases reached over 400 for the first time since the early outbreaks of February and March. The deputy head of KCDC stated that Koreans should “consider handshakes a thing of the past”.
The August 15 rally is becoming a major cluster. By August 26, 219 cases had been linked to the rally—122 participants, 60 by secondary transmission, seven among the police deployed for crowd control, and 30 still under investigation. Of those patients, 144 were residents of the SMR and the rest had come from various other parts of the country. The KCDC and regional centers are struggling to catch up on tracing. Based on cell tower analysis and lists of people who came on the rented buses, about 51 000 individuals, besides those associated with Sarang Jeil Church, were identified as having been around the Gwanghwamun area during the August 15 rally. The lists have been distributed to regional governments so that they can contact and trace individuals in each area.
To gauge the effect of Level 2 in the Seoul Metropolitan Region, residents’ weekend movements were traced both before (August 15–16) and after (August 22–23) the introduction of the Social Distancing Level 2 guidelines, using data from cell phone, credit card and public transportation usage. Cell phone GPS data showed a 10.1% decrease in movement, public transportation usage fell 19.2%, and credit card usage fell 11.5%. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters stated that the current level of social distancing falls far short of flattening the curve. Noting how the residents of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province had reduced their movement by almost 40% during their regional outbreak in February, the residents of Seoul and surrounding areas were advised to do likewise.
The Korean Medical Association (KMA) and the Korean Intern Resident Association (KIRA) are still in the midst of their strike. Earlier, on August 24, the KMA had accepted the government’s terms to end the strike if the government would cease all policy processes and resume discussions after the outbreak in the SMR is under control. However, because KIRA refused to accept the same terms and chose to continue their strike indefinitely, the KMA decided to support KIRA and continue with their own three-day strike as planned. On the first day of KMA’s strike on August 26, about 10% of doctors nationwide joined the strike.
On August 26, the Ministry of Health and Welfare ordered medical interns and residents in the Seoul Metropolitan Area to return to work. Violation of the order could result in a prison sentence, fines, or suspension or revocation of their medical license. This is the first time the government has ever ordered medical workers to resume operations. The ministry inspected the ICUs and ERs of 20 major hospitals in the SMR on August 6 and ordered 358 interns and residents to return to work. KIRA, in turn, had its members keep their cell phones off to avoid receiving the order notifications. KIRA members also began submitting resignation letters to their hospitals on August 27. Around 70% of the members have pledged to resign, though it is unclear how many have already submitted their resignation. For one, all 29 ER interns and residents of Severance Hospital in Sinchon did resign yesterday, which means the hospital can no longer accept intensive care patients. It seems unlikely that KIRA and the government will agree on negotiated terms any time soon.
Aug 26 — 7 am — Monitoring the outbreak, schools in Seoul shift entirely online for three weeks
Infections: 17,945| Cleared: 14,286 | Under treatment: 3,349 | Deaths: 310
(As of Aug 25, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new daily cases has stayed under 300 for the past two days, but the KCDC continues to sound warnings that we are not out of the woods yet. The virus is spreading fast in all parts of the country and the number of patients who cannot be traced to a cluster is increasing. It still remains to be seen whether the Level 2 measures are having an effect. A more important indicator to watch than the number of new cases would be the number of at-risk patients. In the last two weeks (August 12 to 25) 32% of the new patients were over 60 years old, up from 24% in the prior two weeks (July 29 to August 11). Based on the mortality rate so far, such an increase in the proportion of seniors diagnosed with Covid-19 means more people will need intensive care. The KCDC reported that currently there are 38 patients in serious or critical condition.
The National Medical Center’s Central Response Team has been monitoring available spaces for intensive care patients in the Seoul Metropolitan Region. The number of ICU patients is expected to reach 134 by September 1, if the average number of new patients in the region each day stays around 225. Seven of the 85 ICU beds available for coronavirus patients were in use on August 24. The Center and the government are in the process of acquiring more ICU beds in several hospitals in the region.
Between August 11 and August 24, 150 school-aged children and 43 teachers tested positive for Covid-19. This means that, while the fall semester has started for some schools, many students must now go back to entirely online classes for at least the first three weeks of the semester. The Minister of Education announced yesterday that schools in the Seoul Metropolitan Region will cease all face-to-face instruction from August 26 to September 11. Exceptions are high school seniors who must prepare for their university entrance exams which are still fixed for December 3. Schools with less than 60 students, schools located in rural regions, and schools for children with special needs are also exempt. For kindergarten and elementary school-aged children in need of adult supervision, a care service will be provided at school from 9am to 7pm, including lunch. Each room will hold no more than ten students, supervised by after-school instructors and retired teachers. Schools in other cities and regions will continue to get a mixture of online and direct instruction, with elementary and junior high school students gathering at one-third the classroom capacity, and high school students gathering at two-thirds the classroom capacity.
Press conference by the National Medical Center, Kyunghyang Shinmun (Kor)
Announcement from the Ministry of Education regarding the Seoul Metropolitan Region , Ministry of Education (Kor)
Aug 24 — 8 am — Level 2 restrictions nationwide
Infections: 17,399| Cleared: 14,200 | Under treatment: 2,890 | Deaths: 309
(As of Aug 23, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
On Sunday the number of new daily coronavirus cases reached 397. It was also the first day that Level 2 social distancing restrictions were implemented nationwide. This measure comes as new outbreaks are growing in cities and provinces around the country. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters have already mentioned the possibility of moving to Level 3 if there are no improvements in the next few days. Level 3 would prohibit all gatherings of more than ten people. It would be as close to a ‘lockdown’ as we have seen in Korea thus far.
In several major cities and provinces, masks are now obligatory indoors (except while eating or drinking) and also in crowded places outdoors. Mask-wearing has until now only been advised (not required) by the government, unless using public transportation. Gyeonggi Province was the first to make masks obligatory on August 18, and other provinces and cities followed suit. Seoul begins this measure on Monday August 24. Violators may be fined up to ₩3 million.
Yesterday was also the first day that churches in the Seoul Metropolitan Region were prohibited from holding on-site services. Busan and South Chungcheong Province also implemented similar prohibitions. Most churches throughout the country moved their services online, but a number of them—15% of churches in Busan and 24% of churches in South Chungcheong—continued to gather despite possible fines and other penalties.
Sarang Jeil Church continues to make headlines. Because the church has not been cooperative on testing, tracing, and self-quarantine, the government of Seoul filed a lawsuit against the church, which led to a police search of their facilities to confiscate data files in order to obtain the list of church members and other related evidence. The church plans to file a countersuit against the police, the prime minister, and the minister of health and welfare.
The KCDC is still tracing the participants at the August 15 rally in Gwanghwamun Square using cell phone GPS data. So far only 29% of them (1,600) have been tested, but fortunately only 17 of those tests have come back positive. Considering how people might be reluctant to reveal themselves as having attended the rally, the Seoul government decided to allow anonymous testing, requiring individuals to leave only their date of birth and phone number. This is a measure similar to the one implemented after the outbreak in the Itaewon nightclubs to allow people to get tested without revealing their sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, the Korean Intern Resident Association (KIRA) is in the midst of a third round of strikes, which commenced on August 21, this time for an unspecified number of days. The Korean Medical Association is also planning another general strike for August 26 to 28. Hospitals are facing real consequences now, and are being forced to delay treatments and surgeries in the coming week. The doctors are calling on the government to immediately retract its four new policies on increasing the medical school admission quotas, establishing new public medical schools, having public insurance cover traditional Korean medicine, and promoting the telemedicine industry. They are also requesting that the government involves doctors from the beginning of the policy-making process. The Ministry of Health and Welfare has offered to halt the process until after the present outbreak is under control, but has refused to scrap the entire policy. The government has also stated that doctors who do not return to work will face severe consequences. But with the possibility of a second wave looming, both the government and the doctors are facing pressures to negotiate their terms. After a last-minute meeting with the prime minister on Sunday night, KIRA agreed to treat only the coronavirus patients, but otherwise continue their strike.
About a thousand churches outside the SMR continued with on-site Sunday services, Joongang Ilbo (Kor)
Sarang Jeil Church was searched for a list of members, MBC News (Kor)
Anonymous testing for August 15 rally participants, YTN (Kor)
Aug 21 — 9 am — Public assemblies of more than ten people prohibited in Seoul
Infections: 16,346| Cleared: 14,063 | Under treatment: 1,976 | Deaths: 307
(As of Aug 19, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
For the past two days the number of new daily cases of Covid-19 in Korea has been close to 300. Since May the KCDC has conducted around 9,900 tests per day on average, of which 0.55% have given a positive result. But as infection rates have risen, in the past week over 11,300 tests have been conducted on average per day, of which 2.27% have turned out positive. These numbers were specifically mentioned in the KCDC’s briefing on Thursday, perhaps because right-wing YouTubers and Sarang Jeil Church members had been spreading a rumor that the government is intentionally testing more people in order to raise the number of positive cases. The church members continue to distrust the government saying their tests are being manipulated to always return a positive result.
Another concern is the possible spread of the virus after the August 15 rally in Gwanghwamun Square. Transmissions that occurred on that day may start showing up as symptoms in the next few days. So far 18 people, unrelated to Sarang Jeil Church but who attended the rally, have already been identified as coronavirus patients. Among them are some popular right-wing YouTubers and former United Future Party politicians. A representative from the Democratic Party of Korea also announced that some anonymous citizens had given him lists of names of people apparently transported to the rally in at least 79 buses. Many of the buses allegedly picked up participants from the Gyeongsang Provinces. These lists have been submitted to the KCDC to be checked and verified.
To prevent further transmissions Seoul has prohibited rallies and assemblies of more than ten people at least until the end of the month. The announcement calls it a measure that amounts to Social Distancing Level 3 (which prohibits all private and public gatherings of more than ten people both indoors and outdoors). But the same announcement also specifies that the prohibition only applies to assemblies that should be notified to the local authorities according to the statutes on protests and demonstrations. This would mean that it doesn’t apply to general private gatherings of up to 50 people indoors and up to 100 people outdoors, which would still be in line with the Level 2 guidelines. Meanwhile, the KCDC and the government have made clear that they are not yet discussing the possibility of implementing Level 3 measures.
The KCDC is finding many new clusters each day in churches, schools, and workplaces, both in Seoul and the surrounding regions as well as other cities and provinces, and many of them remain untraceable. Meanwhile the number of new imported cases each day has remained at a relatively constant level, in the tens, over the past few days. This means community transmissions are driving the recent increase in cases.
Seoul mandates against rallies attended by more than ten people, Seoul government briefing (Kor)
At least 79 buses rented to transport participants to the August 15 rally, The Hankyoreh (Kor)
Aug 19 — 7 am — Stronger implementation of Level 2, in-person church services prohibited, and aerosol superspreading
Infections: 15,761| Cleared: 13,934 | Under treatment: 1,521 | Deaths: 306
(As of Aug 18, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
On Tuesday afternoon Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced that some of the strongest social distancing measures to date will go into effect on Wednesday August 19. First, the Level 2 measures that had previously been implemented in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province will also be applied to Incheon, considering the proximity and daily population flow to and from the city. Second, Level 2 in the Seoul Metropolitan Region (SMR) means that all gatherings of 50 or more people indoors and 100 or more outdoors will now be prohibited. Third, all high-risk facilities in the SMR including nightclubs, noraebang, and internet cafes must shut down until further notice. Finally, specifically for the Protestant churches in the SMR, all gatherings in person are prohibited. This includes not just the smaller informal gatherings but also the weekly church services. Chung added that if these measures cannot stop the current outbreak, the government will be forced to discuss implementing Level 3, which is sure to have devastating effects on the economy and on society as a whole.
This announcement comes as 457 positive cases have been linked to Sarang Jeil Church. People from all over the country had been gathering in Seoul to attend pastor Jun Kwang-hun’s church services and volunteering to pass out political pamphlets, while staying over in the church building for several days at a time. Many of them then attended their own local churches on Sundays. There are reports that in order to mobilize followers for the August 15 rally, church members discouraged them from getting tested until after August 15. On the day of the rally a message was circulated on social media telling participants to turn off their cell phones and refrain from using credit cards in order to escape tracing. The message also claimed that the government was going to spread fabricated news reports of large scale outbreaks immediately after the rally. This explains why many of the church members could not be reached by phone or traced by the usual routes. Many of the names on the contact list the church submitted also turned out to have no ties with the church. There are also reports of identified church members and attendants fleeing self-quarantine or even the hospital, only to be found after hours of searching by the police. Meanwhile, pastor Jun himself has tested positive for the virus. He continues to maintain that president Moon has forced him and his church indoors and that his church was hit by an act of biological terror which may have even originated from North Korea. These unsubstantiated claims are characteristic of Jun who has been claiming that president Moon and the present administration is in league with the communist North Korea.
Meanwhile the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), which represents a diverse group of mainstream churches, released a statement on Monday condemning the extremist political activities of Jun and Sarang Jeil Church, as well as the spread of fake news, saying these were the result of “an insane fervor of the Cold War”. At the same time, the Council admitted to the mainstream churches’ own complicity in the situation, referring back to July when its leaders had resisted the KCDC’s measures prohibiting informal meetings, claiming violation of the freedom of religion. After the temporary measure in July was lifted, the churches had claimed victory and proceeded with their summer events and gatherings as planned. The Council stated that these actions put their own members and the wider society at risk. Aware that earning back the public trust will be a long and difficult endeavor, the Council advised the churches to fundamentally reconsider what it means to be a church in the world.
Numerous other clusters are growing around the country, but so far the increase in social distancing measures only applies to Seoul and the surrounding areas. The recent outbreaks are also proving to be much more contagious than before. One infected person visiting a community event for a few hours in Yangpyeong resulted in 29 out of 49 people contracting the virus. In Paju, an index patient stayed on the second floor of a Starbucks for over two hours in front of the air conditioner. Twenty-five other people who had visited the second floor at the same time later tested positive, leading the KCDC to suspect that the aerosols from the superspreader had traveled throughout the second floor and stayed trapped indoors because the windows weren’t made to open. The KCDC thinks it likely that the latest cases, like the outbreaks in May, involve the GH strain of the coronavirus, which is much more contagious than the ones that arrived in Korea in February and March. This variety is not necessarily more fatal, but since the latest clusters are breaking out primarily among seniors, the government is bracing for a surge in the number of patients needing intensive care.
What to know about GH strain of coronavirus, The Korea Times (Eng)
Six factors that make Sarang Jeil Church outbreak more dangerous than the one in Shincheonji, Seoul Shinmun (Kor)
Participants at August 15 rally were advised by Sarang Jeil Church to keep their phones off and use cash, The Hankyoreh (Kor)
Press release by the National Council of Churches in Korea, NCCK (Kor)
Aug 17 — 8am — Level 2 explained in more detail, and right-wing pastor claims “virus terror”
Infections: 15,318| Cleared: 13,910 | Under treatment: 1,103 | Deaths: 305
(As of Aug 16, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
On Sunday the number of new cases again hit a record high nationwide with 267 cases from community spread and 12 from international arrivals. This is the highest rate since March 8 when the number of new cases reached 367 thanks to the Shincheonji outbreak. Most of the latest cases were identified in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province where the numbers have been doubling daily since August 13 and the KCDC have calculated that the R value has exceeded 1.5. These are some of the criteria that were to trigger the next step in pandemic prevention measures. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters therefore announced on Saturday that Social Distancing Level 2 will go into effect in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province starting Sunday August 16.
What does this mean in practice? The authorities are allowing some time to adjust to the new situation, and also trying to avoid major economic losses, so the full implementation of Level 2 is not in effect yet. These first two weeks might be considered a grace period as different facilities try their best to avoid being shut down all together. If the situation worsens quickly or cases are identified in particular venues they may be shut down or fined at any time.
High-risk facilities: These are night clubs, pubs, nightlife venues, indoor standing-only concert halls, noraebang or karaoke rooms, indoor group exercise facilities, logistics centers, large scale hagwon (private academies) with over 300 person capacity, headquarters of door-to-door sales and promotion businesses, as well as buffet restaurants. Restrictions will also be applied to internet cafes from August 19 at 6 pm. Level 2 actually means that all of these facilities should cease operations, but for now the government will just tighten inspections and hold the venues accountable if cases arise. Night clubs, pubs, and nightlife venues must admit only one visitor per 4 square meters, restrict movement between tables or rooms, and have a customer visit only one venue per day.
Other facilities: Smaller hagwon, arcades, restaurants larger than 150 square meters, water parks, religious facilities, concert halls, indoor wedding halls, cinemas, public baths and saunas, indoor fitness centers, multi-bang and DVD-bang (entertainment rooms), as well as funeral halls are required to follow the current measures applicable to facility managers and visitors. These venues were designated “medium risk” according to the guidelines issued on June 28. The same measures that were previously merely “advised”—checking attendance, wearing masks except when eating or in the water, and keeping a distance—are now required. Churches and places of worship are especially prohibited from holding gatherings or communal meals, except for the formal weekly services or ceremonies.
Public indoor facilities: Public indoor facilities such as museums, galleries, and libraries must limit visitors to under 50% capacity and resort to online operations if possible.
Social service centers, community centers, public nurseries and preschools: These services must cease operations. But emergency childcare services are essential and will continue to operate.
Gatherings and events of 50 or more people indoors and 100 or more outdoors: Large scale gatherings, such as examinations, exhibitions, expos, information sessions, public hearings, academic symposiums, commemorations, weddings, alumni reunions, club activities, and excursions, are advised to be cancelled or postponed. If the situation worsens in the next two weeks these gatherings will also be prohibited.
Sporting events: At least in Seoul and Gyeonggi Provinces, these will return to having no spectators. The games and matches will continue, however.
Schools: In districts and cities where positive cases have been identified, schools are advised to return to distance learning. Other schools in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province should limit in-person classes to one-third of the regular capacity.
Businesses: Publicly owned businesses are required to determine an appropriate ratio for office attendance (e.g. 50% of the office at one time). Employees may work from home or keep flexible or staggered office hours. Private companies are advised to follow suit.
General advice to residents in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province: Residents are advised not to visit other cities and provinces for the next two weeks to avoid the pandemic spreading to other regions. They are also advised to cancel or postpone all outings, gatherings, events, and travels, except visits to the doctor and to the market for essential goods. Specifically, the KCDC advises takeout or delivery rather than dining at restaurants, working out at home instead of going to the gym, meeting online rather than in person, and shopping online rather than at the stores. And of course, masking, avoiding crowded places, and refraining from actions that transmit aerosols and respiratory droplets (shouting, loud singing, chanting, shaking hands, embracing).
Notice that many of these measures remain advice rather than legal requirements. Depending on how things unfold, they could be upgraded to requirements and prohibitions. These measures also don’t apply to other parts of the country for now, but that may also change depending on the result of testing and tracing. Already some patients thought to have caught the virus at Sarang Jeil Church have been to Incheon and Gangwon Province, resulting in secondary transmissions there.
The recent clusters have cropped up from cafes, restaurants, schools, and a community center, but many of the clusters resulting in the largest numbers of cases have been linked to Protestant churches. Yongin Jeil Church remains the second largest ongoing cluster. It has been cooperating with the KCDC, and most of their attendants have been tested and traced.
Sarang Jeil Church, on the other hand, has been problematic. Of the 267 community transmission cases on Sunday, 190 were connected to this church. An astounding 25% of the church members that have been tested so far turned out to have the coronavirus, and thousands more are yet to be tested. But the church and its pastor have resisted testing and tracing. Some of the church leaders have discouraged members from getting tested, saying they would be healed by prayer instead. When asked to submit a list of members and attendants, the church submitted an incomplete list, omitting the name of its pastor Jun Kwang-hun. Jun also encouraged his followers, many of whom should have been in self-isolation, to attend a right-wing rally at Gwanghwamun on August 15. He himself showed up to rile up the protesters despite the mandate to self-isolate. Jun also claimed that his church was a victim of “virus terror” from outsiders, though he could not produce any evidence for it. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters has warned the church against spreading unqualified claims. It has filed a complaint, along with the Seoul city government, against Jun for violating quarantine rules and obstructing the testing and tracing process by submitting a false or incomplete list of members and attendants. Other identified members and attendants must now also get tested at the risk of legal penalty.
Public opinion against Protestant churches in general has been understandably negative. Other mainstream churches have been cautious to distance themselves from Sarang Jeil Church. Churches have canceled events and gatherings, though most of them still gathered for their Sunday services yesterday, as permitted under current measures. But there have been calls from the public to mandate all churches against meeting in person. Some churches resent popular condemnation against them, which they see as unfair conflation with some radical factions. It is true, though, that Protestant churches are turning out to be more vulnerable to mass virus transmission than other venues or even other religious gatherings.
In any case, these recent developments are showing a resemblance to the March outbreak that started with Shincheonji, but it is in some sense even more dangerous according to the KCDC. Uncooperative megachurches are at the center of both outbreaks, but the Shincheonji cluster was more concentrated on the members themselves, in the less populated city of Daegu, and among the younger population. The present outbreak is occurring in the most populous metropolitan area and numerous other unrelated clusters are breaking out simultaneously, making the ascent much more steep. The average infected population is also much older this time, which means there will be more patients needing hospital treatment. If the number of new cases continues to grow exponentially the medical system and the testing and tracing structure will be quickly overwhelmed.
Jun Kwang-hun claims virus terror, Kukmin Ilbo (Kor)
News footage on the latest developments and clashes at the August 15 rally, MBC News (Kor)
Situation is more urgent than during the first wave in February and March, The Hankyoreh (Kor)
Aug 15 — 9pm — Social Distancing Level 2 for Seoul and Gyeonggi Province
Infections: 15,039| Cleared: 13,901 | Under treatment: 833 | Deaths: 305
(As of Aug 15, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new cases increased yet again to 166 (11 imported, 155 community spread). Many of them are in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, so the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters announced today that it will start implementing Social Distancing Level 2 for this region starting tomorrow, August 16, for at least the next two weeks. Places of worship in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province have already begun implementing heightened measures, now formally prohibiting all gatherings except official weekly religious services and ceremonies. The rest of the country is still holding out to see what happens. I will examine some implications of this measure on Monday.
Aug 14 — 4pm — Number of new cases doubles overnight with new clusters linked to churches, burger chains, and high schools
Infections: 14,873| Cleared: 13,863 | Under treatment: 705 | Deaths: 305
(As of Aug 14, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new coronavirus cases shot up to 103 today after a few days of cases in the fifties. Eighty-five of the new infections are from community spread, which is at its highest level since the end of March. Community transmission cases in the Seoul Metropolitan Region (Seoul and Gyeonggi Province) have doubled overnight, and over 13% of the cases have yet to be traced. Yesterday the KCDC already sounded the alarm that the numbers were showing some warning signs, and that the situation is more volatile than during the outbreaks in May that were traced to clubs in Itaewon and to the logistics centers. These new multiple simultaneous outbreaks show that the virus has been spreading through asymptomatic patients for quite some time and is only now appearing in churches, schools, and markets.
Many of the new cases are linked to churches. Besides the already identified churches in Goyang and Gimpo, 72 new cases were traced to Woori Jeil Church in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, after the first patient was identified there on August 12.
Another cluster was identified at Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul. The famous church is headed by the right-wing populist pastor Jun Kwang-hoon who has had several run-ins with the Seoul city government for holding unauthorized public rallies and church gatherings. The index patient was identified on August 12 and since then 19 church members and their contacts have tested positive. In the midst of the pandemic the church is preparing for a mass protest this weekend—to coincide with the August 15 Liberation Day—calling for president Moon’s resignation. They are expecting 20,000 people to show up for the protest at Gwanghwamun. Seventeen different organizations have registered to hold gatherings at Gwanghwamun that same day, but because of the rise in virus transmissions, Seoul has prohibited all public protests for the day. Seven of the organizations, including Sarang Jeil Church, have declared they will hold the rallies anyway.
Since July 20, clusters have appeared in seven churches, from which 138 church members and 55 contacts have been identified. The KCDC is appealing to the churches to refrain from informal gatherings and to take appropriate preventative measures such as wearing masks. If more church-related clusters are identified the KCDC will have to consider “requiring” churches to follow guidelines, which means churches will be held legally accountable. Apparently, according to the briefing, some churches have not been taking proper attendance and have been uncooperative with the KCDC in tracing. The governor of Gyeonggi Province (where Goyang, Gimpo, and Yongin are located) announced today that from tomorrow all places of worship under his jurisdiction, including Catholic churches and Buddhist temples, are prohibited from all gatherings except the regular weekly services for at least the next two weeks. Religious groups violating this and other prevention guidelines, such as wearing masks, not sharing meals, taking attendance, and avoiding loud singing and praying, will face legal measures.
Another significant recent outbreak was traced to a meeting of 19 store managers and staff of the Korean fast food burger chain Lotteria in Seoul on August 6. After the meeting they continued their gathering at a nearby restaurant and a bar. Nine of the participants tested positive after the index patient was first identified on August 11. The virus then spread to two other workers when the participants returned to eight store locations throughout Seoul. Four further cases have been traced to the restaurant visited by the Lotteria staff.
Other new outbreaks were traced to two high schools in Yongin (nine cases including five students), a cafe in Paju (eight cases), to Seoul’s Dongdaemun market district (four cases), and another vocational high school in Busan (seven cases), along with other smaller clusters. Other ongoing outbreaks at churches and schools in Goyang, Gimpo, and Busan are also adding new cases.
All these new cases, except the ones in Busan, are located in Seoul and in the surrounding cities in Gyeonggi province. Today the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters reported that they are officially considering implementing Social Distancing Level 2 in this region. It is not mandating stronger measures yet, but the long holiday weekend is coming up and the monsoon rains are dying down. The KCDC is simply advising the public to refrain from outings and gatherings and to either stay home or visit uncrowded destinations in small, family units.
Meanwhile the planned doctors’ strike by the Korea Medical Association is going on today, but so far major hospitals are operating as usual, with colleagues making up for the absences in the ERs and ICUs. Some neighborhood clinics have closed for the weekend, but have not specified whether this is for the holidays or for the strike. A mass silent protest is happening in front of the National Assembly this afternoon, each protester wearing their mask and face shield.
Jun Kwang-hoon and Korea’s right-wing, New York Times (Eng)
Aug 12 — 4pm — Doctors against raising quotas
Infections: 14,714 | Cleared: 13,786 | Under treatment: 623 | Deaths: 305
(As of Aug 12, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Continued tracing and testing is adding to the number of coronavirus cases associated with the church-based clusters in Goyang and Gimpo. Goyang’s Banseok Church cluster is also linked to transmissions at the busy Namdaemun market district in Seoul, but so far only eight people at the market have tested positive. There is no further news on whether more cases have been identified at the preschool and the elementary school related to the church clusters. Meanwhile, more positive cases have emerged in Busan in connection with the Korean fishing vessel identified last week (a total of 14 cases) as well as a vocational high school’s adult continuing education class (nine cases in total).
Last Friday Korean medical interns and residents gathered in front of the National Assembly for a day of silent protest against the government plan to increase the number of medical students by 4,000 over the next ten years. The plan is to raise the yearly quota by about 400. It will give more incentives to those entering less lucrative specialties, and to those entering public health sectors in rural areas where there is a shortage of medical personnel. The government is citing doctor shortages in public medical facilities as one reason for the high mortality rate in the rural province of Gyeongsang during the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak. The plan also includes some enforcement mechanisms, requiring two-thirds of the new trainees to remain stationed for ten years in the rural regions in exchange for their tuition and scholarship, and revoking their medical licenses if they do not keep the ten-year tenure.
Hospitals, medical schools, and local governments are welcoming the plan and some civil society organizations are calling for an even higher increase. According to opinion poll results reported on July 29, more than 58% of Koreans also regard the plan in positive terms. But the Korean Intern Resident Association that organized the strike last Friday has stated that the plan will lower the overall quality of medical treatment, and that the budget would be better used to increase wages and working conditions for medical trainees and to support struggling rural hospitals, which would enable them to hire more doctors. The Korean Medical Association, which is also planning on holding a strike this coming Friday, has called the government’s plan “populist” and politically-driven.
Government officials are concerned that this Friday’s strike may cause treatment shortages in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, but given that last Friday’s strike by interns and residents seems to have been adequately covered, the next one may not be too disruptive either.
In other news
Coronavirus: Keeping the virus at bay on S Korea’s beaches, BBC News (Eng)
Aug 10 — 4pm — Church-related transmissions and falling mortality rates
Infections: 14,626 | Cleared: 13,653 | Under treatment: 663 | Deaths: 305
(As of Aug 10, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
As we have seen in the past few months, religious services and communal meals in poorly ventilated spaces are activities that pose a high risk for passing on the coronavirus. More cases have now been traced to the churches in Goyang that were linked to transmission clusters last week. Among the 31 cases related to Banseok Church are seven people who work in the Namdaemun market district, as well as two children and two teachers in a preschool. Family members and other contacts of the teachers and children also tested positive. But between the church and the preschool it is still unclear in which direction the transmission occurred. In the case of Gippeum 153 Church (21 cases), the same eight church members who tested positive had also attended a door-to-door sales training event (another site prone to virus transmission) in Seoul. And one of the church members who works at an elementary school further transmitted the virus to a fellow teacher. The KCDC figures that transmission happened from the sales event, to the church, then to the elementary school. Eight cases have been traced to another church in Gimpo, and five cases to a Christian mission center in Seoul. The City of Goyang has prohibited all church-related gatherings except the weekly church services for the next two weeks, and has ordered affected neighborhoods to implement Social Distancing Level 2. This means that public facilities such as senior centers and libraries are closed, high risk facilities are more closely monitored, and masks are required in crowded public places such as markets and restaurants. Residents of Goyang may get tested for free by visiting a drive-through facility between 10am and 1pm up to August 21.
In general, the proportion of cases where the route of transmission is uncertain has increased over the past month from 6.4% (July 12 to 25) to 8.5% (July 26 to August 8). This may partly be due to the decrease in the number of positive cases arriving from outside the country— around 10 new cases per day in the past two weeks compared to 15 new cases in the prior two weeks. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters observed that since July 13, when the rule was introduced requiring entrants from designated countries to submit a negative PCR test result, the number of imported cases has significantly decreased. Meanwhile, community transmission has also decreased from around 20 new cases per day to 12 in the same period.
And finally, some good news on the Covid-19 mortality rate in South Korea. There was a significant drop in the death rate from 2.46% among patients identified in February and March to 0.98% among patients identified in May and June. Specifically, the mortality rate for Covid-19 patients under sixty fell from 0.26% to 0%, and for patients over sixty from 9.5% to 3.76%. This drop is attributed to the decrease in the number of daily new cases to a level at which the medical system can handle all at-risk patients. Knowledge and experience of the novel coronavirus has also accumulated in the past few months, improving the quality of medical care. What must be done to avoid a repeat of the explosive outbreak and death rates that were seen in the initial few months?
Transmissions in Goyang and government response, The Hankyoreh (Kor)
Aug 7—4pm—A new cafe ritual for the Covid era
Infections: 14,519 | Cleared: 13,543 | Under treatment: 673 | Deaths: 303
(As of Aug 7, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
First, an update on some ongoing transmission clusters. A few more secondary transmission cases were identified for the cafe/restaurant cluster in Seoul bringing the total to 16 patients. In Cheongju, all the participants at the Islamic event that was attended by Covid-19 patients have now tested negative.
Two new clusters have appeared in Goyang, linked to Protestant churches. Fifteen cases were identified in one cluster including family members, church members, co-workers, and acquaintances of the index patient. The KCDC identified the risk factors as being the location of the church on a basement floor with no windows or air circulation, and communal meals after service. At another church, eight patients were identified as the index patient, their family members, and fellow church members. In this church as well, the congregants had meals together after service, increasing the likelihood of transmission. As more church-related clusters are resurfacing, the KCDC is asking churches to cancel summer events or move them online, and to refrain from providing meals and holding small informal meetings.
Cafe-going might be one of the favorite pastimes for Korean city-dwellers, which made the recent cafe-related cluster a big concern for the authorities. Today the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters produced the most detailed guidelines to date for cafe owners and customers. The long and meticulous list asks customers to wear masks at all times as they enter the premises, as they wait for their order, as they move about, as they converse with others, and before and after they consume their food and drink. They should leave at least a meter (preferably two meters) distance and refrain from occupying tables immediately next to others, sit zigzagged or facing only one direction, or use outdoor seating if available. They should wash hands before consuming food or drink, and use separate plates as they share food. They should avoid crowded hours, minimize the time they spend at the cafe, and order out if possible. Cafe owners should themselves wear masks, post signs asking customers to wear masks, and train the staff. They should guide customers to keep a distance as they wait in line, space out the seating or put up barriers in between, and provide hand sanitizers and extra plates. Customers in groups should make appointments to stay for a limited time and in designated spaces or rooms. It is unclear exactly how many people would be considered a group in this scenario. Training for cafe owners and staff will be conducted, and local authorities will inspect venues.
Realistically, I wonder who will actually follow or enforce the guidelines down to every ritualistic detail. Imagine meeting someone at a cafe sitting side by side facing an open space, drinking in silence, or constantly readjusting your mask (infection risk!) before and after a sip of coffee to carry on the conversation. The whole ordeal is too complicated, but maybe that’s the point: Stay away from cafes. I don’t know if cafe-loving Koreans are up for that challenge.
On the international front, the government is lifting restrictions on arrivals from China’s Hubei Province starting Monday August 10. The restriction forbidding all arrivals from the province has been in effect since February 4 this year, because Wuhan, the capital of the province, is believed to have been the center of the Covid-19 outbreak. This reopening is in recognition of China’s recent success in keeping the pandemic under control in the province, as well as a response to the way China has lifted restrictions against Korean students, workers, and residence permit-holders with a negative PCR test starting from August 5.
Aug 5—4pm—An Uzbek community cluster in Cheongju
Infections: 14,456 | Cleared: 13,406 | Under treatment: 748 | Deaths: 302
(As of Aug 5, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The tropical storm Hagupit thankfully weakened, but the accompanying moist air will bring more rain and humidity throughout this week. The sudden landslides and water currents caused by flash flooding have claimed 15 lives so far, and over a thousand people throughout Korea have been displaced by the flooding, with hundreds currently living in temporary shelters. The KCDC is guiding the temporary shelters to make sure the facilities are disinfected and ventilated, the shelter dwellers are checked for symptoms, and that they are wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping a safe distance from each other. While the KCDC has not reported on evidence of waterborne transmission of coronavirus, it is still asking the public in flood-affected regions to take precautions as the flood waters may be contaminated with pathogens. Residents in these areas should use bottled water for drinking, cooking, and brushing teeth.
A new cluster has surfaced among the Uzbek residents in Cheongju, where the first positive test result came on August 4. The patient’s four cohabitants and another acquaintance also tested positive yesterday though only one has shown symptoms. The patient had visited some large-scale events, but additional cases have not emerged thus far, which is a great sign. Five out of the six infected people attended an Islamic religious event on July 31 and, so far, 128 of the 341 people who attended the gathering have tested negative; others are waiting for their results. All six patients had also dined at a restaurant with 13 others, but those people have all tested negative. Other contacts in multiple venues, such as a public sauna and supermarkets, are being traced and tested. The origin of the cluster is still unknown however. One possibility is that the virus may have originated from outside the country, as one of the six patients had recently entered Korea from Uzbekistan. But this route seems unlikely since they spent the customary two weeks quarantined in Kimpo before arriving at the residence in Cheongju where the patient and the cohabitants later tested positive. There have been consistent calls from some quarters for the government to close international borders and to stop spending money on treating non-citizens. Hopefully this transmission event does not feed into latent Islamophobia and xenophobia in the public.
Other small untraceable community transmission clusters continue to grow, though not explosively. Thirteen patients are now linked to the cafe cluster in Seoul, and others have been traced to offices and a church in Seoul, a military base in Pocheon, and a Korean fishing vessel in Busan.
Summary of damage from the recent rains and flooding, Ministry of Interior and Safety (Kor)
Cheongju cluster with possible foreign origin, CBS NoCut News (Kor)
Aug 3 — 4pm — First cafe transmission identified
Infections: 14,389 | Cleared: 13,280 | Under treatment: 808 | Deaths: 301
(As of Aug 3, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Yesterday the KCDC announced that a new cluster has been linked to a cafe and a restaurant in a busy district of Seoul, confirming ten new Covid-19 patients. The first identified patient (the index patient) tested positive on July 27. Through contact tracing, two others who had met with the index patient at a busy cafe, as well as two other people, were found to have been infected. The index patient later visited a restaurant where another customer and staff member also contracted the virus, and three more cases resulted from secondary contact. It seems that the cases at the cafe and restaurant are related, but it is still unknown where the index patient was first infected. This is the first identified transmission cluster at a cafe, which is rather amazing considering how freely people have been frequenting packed cafes in Seoul throughout the outbreak.
Further tracing has revealed that the cafe cluster may in fact be connected to the campsite cluster reported last week. The first identified patient traced to the Gangwon-do campsite (testing positive on July 26) had stayed at the same cafe for half an hour around the same time as the index patient. It’s yet unclear how the transmission happened, in which direction, or who else came into contact. So far ten patients have been traced back to the campsite cluster.
An update on cases among foreign arrivals: a further 72 Korean construction workers were transported back from Iraq last Friday. So far 18 of them have tested positive while staying at a quarantine facility. In the past two weeks (July 19 to August 1) there have been significantly more daily new cases on average from outside the country (27.7) than from community transmission (16.9) partly due to the returnees from Iraq and and the cases linked to the Russian fishing vessel. This also means that only 6.6% of the cases remain untraceable, compared to 7.5% in the prior two weeks (July 5 to 18).
The number of daily new cases from community transmission is staying low, with eight reported yesterday and three today. But the trend may also have to do with the longer than usual monsoon season and constant rains causing flash floods in Busan, Seoul, Chungcheong Province, and Gangwon Province. A tropical storm is expected to land in China tomorrow and pass through South Korea on Thursday. The stormy weather may keep people at home and away from vacation sites for at least another week.