Jul 31— 4pm — The one who swam back to North Korea
Infections: 14,305 | Cleared: 13,183 | Under treatment: 821 | Deaths: 301
(As of July 31, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Community transmission is staying quite low with only seven new cases of Covid-19 reported yesterday and 14 today, not counting the cases among foreign arrivals. Contact tracing and testing of the Seoul City Hall workers have found no other positive cases so far.
Camping and outdoor leisure activities are not 100% Covid-proof. So far, nine out of 18 people (six families) who went on a camping trip together for three days in Gangwon Province have tested positive for Covid-19. It is yet unclear where they first caught the virus. For sure, there is less chance of virus transmission when camping outdoors than when staying in densely packed indoor spaces, but there are still ways transmission can happen while eating or using public washrooms at camp sites. The KCDC advises the public to go on short trips if possible, and in small family units rather than in large groups.
The Korean Central News Agency, the official news outlet of North Korea, announced back on July 26 that a man with Covid-19 symptoms had crossed over from South Korea to the North and into the city of Kaesong on July 19. The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared a state of emergency for the country and ordered the city to be locked down. It turns out that the man had defected from North Korea three years ago by swimming across the mouth of the Han River and had been living in Gimpo. Recently, when under investigation for a sexual assault charge, he apparently chose to return to North Korea by a similar path from Ganghwa Island. In terms of his infection status, no trace of the virus was found on the belongings he left behind. Two of his close contacts are in self-quarantine but have tested negative, and eight other contacts living in Gimpo and Seoul are still waiting for their results. The KCDC stated that, based on the evidence so far, there is little chance that the man had the virus. But North Korea, which continues to boast of zero Covid-19 cases, may still blame South Korea for spreading the virus in the country through the returnee.
Jul 29 — 4pm — 111 children and teens since May: breaking down the numbers
Infections: 14,251 | Cleared: 13,069 | Under treatment: 882 | Deaths: 300
(As of July 29, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Contact tracing continues of Covid-19 cases linked to the Russian shipping vessel PETR1. So far, nine Korean ship repairpersons and two of their family members have tested positive. Twelve more crew members of PETR1 have also tested positive, bringing the total up to 44 infected crew members. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters briefed today that starting August 3, all crew members arriving from Russia and other high-risk countries will be required to submit the results of a PCR test taken within 48 hours of departure.
On Monday, a person who had visited Seoul City Hall for a meeting tested positive, which shut down the 11th floor as well as the building’s dining hall and cafe for disinfection. The 32 people who had come into close contact tested negative. A further 164 people who work in the other offices on the 11th floor and 163 others who often visit the floor are still being tested.
Previously the KCDC had reported that there had been only one case of infection in schools. Yesterday the agency briefed the public with more details of the numbers of Covid-19 cases among children and teenagers. Between May 1 and July 25, 111 minors between the ages of three and 18 tested positive from community transmission. Seven to 12 year-olds were the most affected (47 cases) while other age groups were infected at lower rates (3–6 years: 18 cases; 13–15 years: 23 cases; 16–18 years: 23 cases). Of the children who tested positive, 60.4% had caught the virus from family members, followed by 16.2% at hagwon (private academies) and tutoring sessions, 8.1% at other publicly used facilities (religious facilities, PC cafes, karaoke rooms, restaurants), and only one person at school (an elementary school in Daejeon). For all age groups except the 16 to 18-year-old high schoolers, who most frequently caught the virus at a hagwon, family transmission was the main cause. As the summer break begins and children are let out of schools, the KCDC advises children and teens to keep their masks on on public transportation and indoor spaces such as hagwon, and to refrain from visiting PC Cafes, karaoke rooms, and other entertainment facilities.
Clubs and bars may also be subject to stronger regulations for the summer vacation season. The Ministry of Health and Welfare announced on Monday that it was recommending local governments to mandate, if necessary, that all high-risk entertainment facilities such as clubs and bars limit capacity to ensure four square meters per person, insert an hour of break time after three hours of operation, and take reservations for entry during peak hours. Facilities found to be violating the rules would be fined up to ₩3 million or ordered to cease operation. The purpose of this measure is to prevent another large transmission cluster like the one in May from a club in Itaewon.
Jul 27 — 4pm — Crossing borders
Infections: 14,175 | Cleared: 12,905 | Under treatment: 971 | Deaths: 299
(As of July 27, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
As expected, of the 293 Korean construction workers transported back from Iraq last week, 71 have so far tested positive for Covid-19. They are receiving treatment while the others remain in quarantine facilities. These cases from Iraq, plus an outbreak traced to a Russian shipping vessel, added to the total count of new cases, which rose to 113 for Saturday July 25. The KCDC asked the public not to be alarmed by the numbers, and characterized the transport as a rescue operation. The number of new cases went back down to 58 yesterday and 25 today.
Infections found in the city of Busan were traced to the Russian fishing vessel PETR1. The ship had passed quarantine inspections as it anchored in Port Sinseondae on July 8, but these did not include virus testing for any crew members who would not disembark. A Korean ship repairperson, who had frequented the ship since it anchored, tested positive on July 23. The 94-person crew were then tested, and 32 of them were found to be infected. The ship itself was also tested revealing traces of the virus on surfaces such as pillows, tables, and door handles. Seven more repairpersons who had worked on the ship also tested positive, and their contacts are being traced. A total of 14 Russian vessels including PETR1 are anchored off of Busan, and 40 crew members from those ships have tested positive. They have been transported to a medical center for treatment.
In the past two weeks the number of new cases per day among new arrivals (both Korean nationals and foreigners) averaged 31.4, a big increase from 19.6 in the prior two weeks. While most cases are under quarantine and under control, a concern is that there may be secondary transmissions that have spread to the community, as with the ship repairpersons coming in contact with the Russian vessel. Fortunately, no further positive cases have yet been reported from contact tracing.
With more foreign nationals being treated for Covid-19 in Korean hospitals, there have been concerns that the situation may overwhelm the medical care system. Yesterday the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters announced that they will start revising the law to require non-citizens who bring the infection into the country to pay for their own treatment. The new rule will apply to foreigners who are aware that they are infected before arrival or test positive during the two-week quarantine period. Initially, though, the rule will be applied only to foreigners caught violating the quarantine. So far, the government has covered all the costs of Covid-19 treatments for both Koreans and foreigners, following Article 40 of the International Health Regulations (2005).
Covid-19 testing, however, will continue to be free of charge for foreigners.
Jul 24 — 4pm — Korean workers return from Iraq, virus prevention in schools, Safety e-Report, and the youth discover the great outdoors
Infections: 13,979 | Cleared: 12,817 | Under treatment: 864 | Deaths: 298
(As of July 24, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
There have been growing concerns that Korean construction workers in Iraq are being exposed to the pandemic without adequate medical care, and three have already died of Covid-19. The Korean government sent two tanker aircraft specially to transport the Korean workers back home. They arrived at Incheon International Airport this morning and were transported to quarantine facilities. The 86 workers who had shown symptoms before embarking on the plane were tested on arrival at the airport, and others will be tested at the quarantine facility.
School schedules vary, but in many schools the spring semester is now drawing to a close. The summer break is also going to be much shorter than usual because of the late start. The KCDC reported today that since May 20, when in-school learning resumed, there has been only one instance of Covid-19 transmission in school. During this period classroom attendance was reduced, all students and teachers kept their masks on, and all equipment was regularly disinfected. Classrooms were supplied with masks, disinfectants, and other hygiene equipment, and 40,000 medical personnel were sent to support the schools. More of the same is expected for the next semester unless the number of new cases falls significantly. MBC news reported that the Ministry of Education is planning to maintain the current strategy of mixing online and in-school learning, operating classrooms at two-thirds capacity for high schools and one-third capacity for elementary and middle schools.
From July 1 to 22 the Safety e-Report system received 1,273 complaints from Korean residents related to coronavirus concerns. Safety e-Report (also known as Safety Singmungo Report) is a complaint reporting system managed by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety since 2014. Through its smartphone application and web portal anyone can report “hardware” safety hazards on roads, and in school zones, factories, and businesses, as well as “software” safety issues such as cyber security, sexual violence, and food poisoning, and suggest revisions to the law. If someone uploads a picture of a pothole, for example, the relevant local government will remedy the issue and respond to the complaint on the portal with photographic evidence. Since the Covid-19 outbreak the system has been updated to enable complaints on related infractions. The KCDC briefing on July 23 reported that of the 1,273 coronavirus-related reports, 705 (55.4%) had been about guideline infractions such as a movie theater assigning seats without ensuring social distance or keeping a visitors’ log.
The pandemic is changing the way young Koreans spend their leisure time. Gmarket, a popular e-commerce company, calculated that in the first half of this year, purchases of hiking, camping, and golf clothing and equipment increased by 24% among customers in their 20s and 30s looking to avoid crowded enclosed spaces. Outdoor activities have increased in general; customers in their 40s and 50s have also bought more hiking, camping, and golf equipment, with sales increasing by 13%. But the purchasing patterns of the “MZ Generation” (Millennials and Gen Z) suggest that the outdoor leisure activities previously enjoyed mostly by ajumma and ajusshi (middle-aged women and men) are now also attracting the instagram-conscious younger generations. Specifically, sales of women’s hiking outfits increased by 103%, camping tents and tarp shelters by 47%, and golf clubs by 47% among those in their 20s and 30s. People in their 20s were more likely to get into hiking and trekking, which take less initial spending on equipment, whereas the 30-year-olds were more likely to buy camping and golf equipment as a long-term investment.
Jul 22 — 4pm — Churches may resume gatherings, infections in the military, public museums open
Infections: 13,879 | Cleared: 12,698 | Under treatment: 884 | Deaths: 297
(As of July 22, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of daily new cases from community transmission has stayed in the tens and twenties in the past two weeks. Recognizing this trend, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters today decided to withdraw the nationwide prohibition of unofficial church gatherings effective July 24. This was also out of recognition that church-based transmissions since June have generally happened only in specific metropolitan regions (Seoul, Gwangju, Daejeon). Starting this Friday, regional and local governments may decide to limit or prohibit types of church gatherings as they gauge the infection trends in their area.
There is a troubling outbreak in the military camp in Pocheon in Gyeonggi Province. Thirteen soldiers have tested positive so far and others are waiting for their test results. Considering how they live in close quarters, many more could have been affected. Previously the KCDC tested 46,835 soldiers in 30 army, navy, and airforce training camps from May 3 to July 2 resulting in only one positive case. The KCDC will continue to test military personnel up to the first week of September, this time including higher ranking personnel.
Seoul residents now have the option to visit galleries and museums if their summer vacation plans have been scrapped due to the pandemic. Public museums, galleries, and libraries in the Seoul Metropolitan Region are resuming operations today. The number of visitors to these facilities are limited to 30% capacity and they should maintain social distance. The national concert halls will also resume performances but at 50% capacity leaving alternate seats empty. Visitors to these public facilities must also check in with KI-PASS.
Jul 20 — 4pm — That contact tracing study from Korea: what does it say about reopening schools?
Infections: 13,771 | Cleared: 12,572 | Under treatment: 903 | Deaths: 296
(As of July 20, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Yesterday there were only four new confirmed cases through community transmission, though 22 new cases were detected among foreign arrivals. New community transmission cases continue to crop up in Seoul and Gwangju, but the average number of daily new cases has decreased to 21.4 per day in the past two weeks (July 5 to 18) compared to 31.0 per day in the prior two weeks (June 21 to July 4). The number of new clusters also fell from 16 in the prior two-week period to nine in the past two weeks, and the percentage of untraceable cases decreased from 8.7% to 7.8%. These numbers make sense considering the average number of daily new cases from foreign arrivals increased from 15.8 to 27.4 in the same period. The so-called “imported cases” are mostly traced and quarantined in a timely fashion.
A study on Korea’s contact tracing program, published as an “early release” article in the Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal on July 16, is being widely circulated in the United States. The study traced 5,706 Covid-19 patients and their 59,073 contacts (10,592 household contacts and 48,481 non-household contacts) reported between January 20 and March 27. In light of the politicized controversy in the United States around the reopening of schools for the fall semester, the discussions have focused on the finding that when an index patient  was between the ages of 10 and 19, 18.6% of their contacts in the household tested positive. On the other hand, those between the ages of 0 and 9 were associated with only 5.3% transmission within the household, and 20 to 29 year-olds with only 7.0%. Among non-household contacts, though, those associated with index patients in the age groups 0 to 9 (1.1%), 10 to 19 (0.9%), 20 to 29 (1.1%), and 30 to 39 (0.9%) were all infected at similar rates. Overall, 11.8% of household contacts (1,248 out of 10,592) were infected with Covid-19, but only 1.1% of non-household contacts (921 out of 48,481). The study concluded that masks should be worn in the households of identified patients.
On the topic of reopening schools, the authors of the study cautioned that “Although the detection rate for contacts of preschool-aged children was lower, young children may show higher attack rates when the school closure ends, contributing to community transmission of COVID-19.” Schools began reopening in Korea in April, which was after the data in this study had already been collected, so the data on non-household contacts doesn’t reflect transmission in schools. Since April, schools have temporarily closed by city and region when there have been surges in cases or instances of infection among school personnel. But it’s unclear whether there have been significant transmission events within schools thus far. All school personnel are tested when an associated person tests positive, and I don’t remember seeing reports that significant secondary transmission has happened among those tested.
It’s also notable that this study is really not being talked about here in Korea. So far I have found only one online news article published this morning summarizing the study. It echoes the study’s concerns with school reopening and mentions that the study is being widely discussed in the United States. There are as yet no other reports or discussions on the remaining limitations of the study.
Contact Tracing during Coronavirus Disease Outbreak, South Korea, 2020, EID Journal (Eng)
The Korean news article on the contact tracing study, News1 (Kor)
Jul 17 — 4pm — Beaches in the summer of Covid-19
Infections: 13,672 | Cleared: 12,460 | Under treatment: 919 | Deaths: 293
(As of July 17, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
With borders closed in many countries, those who would have traveled abroad are flocking to the hottest vacation spots in Korea. Jeju Island is number one on many people’s list, with its laid-back beaches and scenic hills. This also means that as people from all over the mainland mingle, virus transmission is likely. A visitor from Seoul who stayed in Jeju for six days tested positive this week. Two of her family members and two others at a sauna and a tea house she visited there tested positive. Many more have been traced, isolated and are awaiting test results.
How do you keep socially distanced at the beach? According to KCDC guidelines, beaches, pools, and popular mountain streams should be managed to limit the number of visitors and to ensure facilities are disinfected. Regional governments are taking other creative measures as well. For example, starting July 25, on five beaches in Busan including the most popular Haeundae Beach, visitors will be required to wear masks at all times. Eating and drinking on the beach will also be prohibited between 7pm and 6am. Violators may be fined up to ₩3 million. In Gangwon Province visitors to its eight largest beaches (Gyeongpo, Naksan, Sokcho, Samcheon, Mangsang, Maengbang, Chooam, and Hajodae) will need to reserve their spaces or parasols in advance. Bath and shower facilities will operate at 50% capacity. Gangreung, a city in Gangwon Province, is trying out additional measures as their beaches open from today. Visitors must have their temperature checked on arrival and wear a wristband to prove it. To use the shower stalls and other facilities they must check in with KI-Pass. Ten drones with cameras and speakers will patrol the beaches to ensure people keep a two meter distance.
At the opening ceremony of the 21st National Assembly yesterday all the attendees wore masks, except for the speakers as they went up to the podium. There were no handshakes as the president entered and exited through the middle aisle, keeping socially distanced. The assembly members sitting stoically with their black and white masks on was a strange but strangely comforting sight.
And finally, Korean news outlets are writing about the Republican governor of Maryland Larry Hogan’s op-ed piece in The Washington Post, in which he recalls president Trump’s comments on President Moon and South Korea: “Trump said he really didn’t like dealing with President Moon from South Korea. The South Koreans were ‘terrible people’, he said.” According to the top-rated comments on the news, Koreans aren’t surprised.
In other news
How Korean schools conducted online classes in the spring semester, Ministry of Education (Eng)
Jul 15 — 4pm — The “smart”, “green” Korean New Deal for the post-Corona age, and the third supplementary budget
Infections: 13,551 | Cleared: 12,348 | Under treatment: 914 | Deaths: 289
(As of July 15, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The KCDC briefed the public yesterday with a reality check: don’t expect the pandemic to end anytime soon. We just have to learn to live with it and keep it under control as much as possible.
The Korean New Deal for the “post-Corona age” was officially announced yesterday by President Moon and the Minister of Economy and Finance. It’s an ambitious five-year plan to go beyond simply managing the crisis and instead turn it into a growth opportunity. The plan is made up of two pillars—the Digital New Deal and Green New Deal—on the foundation of a Social Safety Net. The Digital New Deal initiative is about majorly accelerating the construction of the data, network, and artificial intelligence infrastructure. This is partly a response to the Covid-19 era need for less person-to-person contact. The plan includes equipping rural regions, schools, and businesses with high speed internet and digital infrastructure, and fostering the growth of distance learning, remote work, and telemedicine. Social overhead capital (SOC) such as roads, sewage, and logistics will also be managed through a digitized grid. The Green New Deal involves programs to reduce carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy in order to curb climate change. Old public housing and other public facilities will be renovated to be more energy efficient, and there will be more investments in electric and hydrogen powered vehicles and renewable energy. All this is to be built on top of a reinforced Social Safety Net meant to change the “unequal society” into an “inclusive society”. Specifically the plan will provide employment insurance, create new jobs, and provide training for those looking to work in the tech industry. In all, the government plans to invest ₩160 trillion (US$132.7 billion) and create 1.9 million new jobs by 2025.
Ten major programs under this plan were announced yesterday: Data Dam, AI Government, Smart Medical Infrastructure, Green Smart School, Digital Twin, Digitization of Safety SOC, Smart Green Industrial Complex, Green Remodeling, Green Energy, and Environment-friendly Future Mobility (my translation of the titles). I don’t have the details of the programs, and the titles don’t give away much yet, but the emphasis seems to be more on the “smart” than on the “green”. They are driven more by technological innovations and deregulation for economic development than by regulations to alleviate climate change and economic inequality. This definitely doesn’t go as far as the Green New Deal resolution in the United States, which calls for 100% clean energy by 2030. Who knows what will happen to the Korean New Deal in a few years’ time. But for now the most recent supplementary budget has allocated ₩4.8 trillion (US$3.9 billion) toward this plan, so it’s definitely happening.
This is probably a good time to review the third supplementary budget of the year that was passed in the National Assembly back on July 3 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The ₩35.1 trillion(US$29.3 billion) sum is the largest ever single spend since 1972 and the first time the government has passed a third supplementary budget. This is expected to be the last supplementary budget of the year, and 75% of it will be spent within the next three months to get the most out of the stimulus.
Besides making up for the tax revenue shortfall, the main objective of the latest budget is to stabilize employment by supporting businesses and providing social safety nets for the unemployed and those on a low income, a total spend of ₩24.7 trillion (US$20.7 billion). The remaining ₩10.4 trillion (US$8.6 billion) has been budgeted for stimulating domestic spending and exports (₩3.2 trillion), building up the pandemic and disaster response system (₩2.4 trillion), and implementing the Korean New Deal (₩4.8 trillion). The stimulus package specifically supports businesses relocating back to Korea (so-called “U-turn companies”) as well as start-ups and small and medium scale businesses.
Specifically on the pandemic response, the budget has allocated ₩0.8 trillion to stocking up on equipment such as masks, increasing treatment facilities, supporting medical personnel, and providing free influenza vaccines. ₩0.2 trillion will be spent on researching and developing vaccines and treatments and providing assistance to other countries responding to Covid-19.
The National Assembly has also allocated extra funds to the demographic in their 20s and 30s in light of the current social issues. Responding to the debate on university tuition refunds, ₩0.1 trillion has been budgeted to indirectly support students by supporting the universities that have been conducting distance learning and providing scholarships in response to the pandemic. ₩0.4 trillion is also bracketed to support this age group with their housing leases, low interest loans, employment, start-ups, and university tuition fees.
For the general public, however, the most immediate effect might be the vouchers that will be distributed to encourage spending. The budget has allocated ₩0.5 trillion on vouchers for produce, tourism, restaurants, cinemas and concerts, and ₩3 trillion on vouchers to spend on local businesses.
Some other links
President Moon introduces the Korean New Deal, YNA (Kor)
Link to the report on the third supplementary budget that was passed on July 3, Ministry of Economy and Finance (Kor)
Jul 13 — 4pm — Living with the virus
Infections: 13,479 | Cleared: 12,204 | Under treatment: 986 | Deaths: 289
(As of July 13, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Covid-19 is here to stay for the next year or two, at least until a vaccine is developed and distributed. That’s what the Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neunghoo gathered yesterday from the results of the latest antibody test that we discussed last week. Only 0.033% of the samples tested positive for antibodies, and though the results of this study are still inconclusive, it seems clear that it is impossible to expect Korea to develop herd immunity. We just have to continue being vigilant and get used to wearing masks.
In recent weeks the virus has seemed to be coming under control. New cases in the Seoul Metropolitan Region have been decreasing, though they continue to rise in Gwangju and other cities and provinces. In the past two weeks (June 28 to July 11) there have been only seven new transmission clusters, compared to 19 in the prior two weeks (June 14 to 27). The percentage of untraceable positive cases has also stayed under 10% (9.4%).
The number of positive cases originating outside the country is the most recent point of concern. Yesterday the total number of new cases was 62, but 43 of those were from abroad. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters reported today that in the past week (July 3 to 9) an average of 4,583 people, of which 2,780 were Korean citizens and 1,803 non-citizens, entered Korea each day. The KCDC confirmed that 158 of those arrivals (42 Korean citizens, 116 non-citizens) tested positive for Covid-19.
Korea has been enforcing mandatory testing and a two-week quarantine for everyone who enters the country, so there is little risk of further transmission. But in order to ease the burden on the country’s Covid-19 tracing and treatment system, there have been limits placed on the number of entrants from certain high risk countries. Since July 9, flights from these countries have been operating at under 60% seating capacity. And starting today, all entrants from these countries will be required to submit a certificate, issued within the last 48 hours by a medical institution designated by the Korean embassy, which proves they have tested negative in a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test. Officials in the recent briefings have not specified which countries are designated as high-risk, but according to Yonhap News Agency the countries are Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Whether other countries will be added to this list remains to be seen.
Some other links
Limits on foreign arrivals, Yonhap News Agency (Eng)
Jul 10 — 4pm — Inconclusive results on antibodies testing, churches respond to targeted measures
Infections: 13,293 | Cleared: 12,019 | Under treatment: 987 | Deaths: 287
(As of July 10, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Yesterday the KCDC briefed on the antibody test results I mentioned about a week ago. As I wrote at the time, the KCDC searched for antibodies in two pools of blood samples: 1,555 excess samples taken in April and June for the 2020 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and 1,500 samples taken in May at medical facilities in south-west Seoul. The results of the plaque reduction neutralization tests (PRNT) showed zero positive cases among the national survey samples and only one positive case from the Seoul sample. Compared to other countries and cities (Spain 5%, London 17%, Stockholm 7.3%, and Tokyo 0.1%), Korea seems to have a much lower level of antibodies in its population.
There isn’t a lot more new information or analysis, though. Experts met to discuss results on July 8 and noted that because samples from some areas including Daegu, the site of the first mass outbreak, were not collected for this round of the national survey in April and June, the results are not conclusive. Daegu and North Gyeongsang province will be tested for antibodies in July, and more samples will be tested until the end of the year to add to the findings.
The KCDC sounded a positive note, though: that the results mean that the collective efforts in social distancing, plus wide scale testing and tracing, have been effective in curbing transmission. Of course it also means that Korea is far from reaching the level of “herd immunity”.
In time for the weekend, the KCDC’s measures for the Protestant churches announced on July 8 go into effect today. Official weekly services (which may be on Sundays and other weekdays) may continue but all other smaller and unofficial gatherings are prohibited. The KCDC noted that in May and June, transmissions occurred in 47 different churches and church-related gatherings in the Seoul Metropolitan Region, mostly in smaller unofficial meetings rather than regular services.
In response, some churches issued strongly worded statements. The United Christian Churches of Korea (UCCK) representing about 30 major evangelical denominations stated they resent the “shallow measures borne of utterly bureaucratic notions”, saying the government is unfairly targeting churches when cafes and restaurants are allowed to remain open. The heads of the two largest denominations—the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Korea (Hapdong) and the Presbyterian Church of Korea (Tonghap)—also separately issued statements saying the government’s measures disregard and insult the churches’ virus prevention efforts thus far. They call the recent measures reverse discrimination and violation of their freedom of religion.
On the other hand, the National Council of Churches in Korea (KNCC), which is associated with the World Council of Churches, noted that the KCDC is respecting churches’ prevention efforts by allowing for the weekly services to continue, and that churches should consider creative ways to substitute high-risk activities with safer alternatives in order to maintain social distancing. Other denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea also encouraged member churches to follow guidelines, and clarified the kinds of gatherings that are allowed and others that are prohibited.
KCDC measures on churches result from analysis of cases in May and June, NewsNJoy (Eng)
Response from UCCK (Kor)
Response from KNCC (Kor)
Jul 8 — 4pm — Church retreats canceled, daily risks classified, and mask supply restrictions lifted
Infections: 13,244 | Cleared: 11,970 | Under treatment: 989 | Deaths: 285
(As of July 8, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of new Covid-19 cases rose back up to 63 today after a dip into the forties for two days. Also, the number of people testing positive as they enter Korea from overseas (33) again exceeded the number cases resulting from community spread (30). We will keep watch on these trends.
This morning the Central Disaster and Safety Measure Headquarters announced a measure for churches with more teeth than ever before. Churches are still allowed to meet for official weekly services on Sundays or other days, but all other gatherings and events are prohibited starting Friday July 10. The officials specified that this includes retreats, prayer meetings, revivals, small group meetings, bible studies, and choir practices. Praying, singing, or speaking loudly is also prohibited, and singing is not recommended. Eating or drinking in church facilities is prohibited and churches should either use the electronic check-in system (KI-PASS) or take attendance manually. Churches should appoint someone to be responsible for these hygiene procedures and ensure facilities are disinfected before and after gatherings. Plus, as already announced numerous times, church-goers should continue to wear masks at all times and keep a safe distance of two meters (at least one meter).
If these measures were previously mere recommendations for most churches, now all churches (not just the ones where transmissions occurred) must abide by the measures. Violations could result in fines (up to 3 million won) or shutdowns. Churches are still not designated high-risk facilities, though, and this is to allow for weekly services to continue. In practice there haven’t been many mass transmissions during official gatherings, with attendees tending to wear masks and keep a distance in the pews. The problem has been in smaller unofficial gatherings and retreats, and this latest measure is a response to these trends. Summer is of course a major season for church retreats and vacation bible studies, so I suspect these measures are also meant to be preemptive.
At this same briefing, 12 everyday activities were classified as high, medium or low risk based on one main indicator (face masks, saliva droplets) and two supplementary indicators (contact with other people, sharing equipment). For low risk activities (shopping, reading and studying, gaming, attending an event as a spectator) it is feasible to wear masks constantly and saliva droplet emissions are less of an issue. There is also little to no contact with others or sharing of equipment. Mask wearing may be difficult for medium and high risk activities. But for medium risk activities (attending religious services, washing in public baths and saunas, getting haircuts and beauty treatments) contact with others is relatively brief and equipment sharing can be kept to a minimum. High risk activities (eating in a restaurant, exercising, singing, swimming) involve longer periods of contact with others as well as equipment sharing. Risk levels may vary from facility to facility, of course. And the purpose of these classifications is to promote low-risk activities and enable individuals to assess risks for themselves.
Public rationing of certified masks will end on July 12. Since the initial surge of demand months ago, production increased enough to prevent shortages and long lines. With the warmer weather more people have been opting for lighter and more breathable KF-AD (Korea filter, anti-droplet) and dental masks rather than KF94 or KF80 masks sold in pharmacies. So in recent weeks individuals have been able to buy up to ten masks per week at pharmacies, up from the previous three-per-week limit. The KF masks have also been available for cheaper online and in supermarkets (and without limits or ID-checking) for a few weeks now, so it’s about time for this transition. The government has provided assurances that enough masks are reserved for medical facilities and for the remote rural areas, and the supply and demand will be watched closely to prevent price gouging.
Jul 6 — 4pm — Transmissions moving southward, in small informal gatherings
Infections: 13,137 | Cleared: 11,848 | Under treatment: 1,005 | Deaths: 284
(As of Jul 6, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
This afternoon, the KCDC reported that they analyzed the gene sequence of 526 cases according to the GISAID’s seven phylogenetic groupings or “clades” (S, V, L, G, GH, GR, and Other) for COVID-19 DNA ancestry. Before April, the S and V clades were prominent in Korea, as in the rest of Asia, and the G, GR, and GH clades were more concentrated in Europe and North America. But in today’s report, 333 of the 526 cases were identified as GH clade. The GH clade is known to be more contagious than other types, though how much more contagious or fatal is unknown. The GH clade viruses were found in cases in Yecheon and Seoul and more recently in Daejeon and Gwangju.
Over the weekend the number of positive test cases in Gwangju rose quickly for a total of 82 new cases in the city since June 27, and 115 since the first outbreak. The surrounding South Jeolla Province is following the city of Gwangju to switch to Level 2 for the next two weeks (starting today). 180 schools in the northern part of Gwangju, from kindergartens to high schools, were ordered to extend their distance learning until July 12. Gwangju is also coordinating with hospitals in the North and South Jeolla provinces to accommodate and treat Covid-19 patients.
Every Sunday afternoon comes a national trends analysis report from the Central Disaster and Safety Measures Headquarters. Yesterday the Headquarters reported the trends for the past month, comparing the most recent two weeks (June 21 to July 4) to the prior two weeks (June 7 to June 20). The average number of new cases increased slightly from 46.7 to 46.9. Notably, the numbers in the Seoul Metropolitan Region (SMR) decreased from 33.4 to 18.4. The number of mass outbreak clusters also decreased from 14 to 12. These are positive signs, but there are more troubling trends. 10.7% of the new cases in the last two weeks remain untraceable, up from 9.9% in the prior two weeks. The officials interpret this as a sign that transmissions are happening less in large-scale official gatherings, which can be easily identified and inspected, and more in smaller unofficial gatherings such as small bible studies and door-to-door sales gatherings.
The number of positive cases from overseas has also increased in the past two weeks, averaging 15.8 people per day, up from 5.9. But since all international arrivals must go through testing and a two-week quarantine period, all the positive cases have been traced and treated. The officials are determining that there is very low risk of community transmission from foreigners.
We have also seen the outbreaks moving sequentially south-west, hitting the previously unaffected Daejeon and Gwangju metropolitan areas. This might be a sign of a second wave on the national scale, which was perhaps bound to happen sooner or later. But officials have determined the current outbreaks are not yet serious enough to implement Level 2 nationally.
GISAID on clade nomenclature, (Eng)
Jul 3 — 4pm — Guidelines for subways, restaurants and churches
Infections: 12,967 | Cleared: 11,759 | Under treatment: 926 | Deaths: 282
(As of Jul 3, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Today the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters reported that community transmission in Gwangju had resulted in 51 new cases for the city between June 27 and July 2. Yesterday the city ratcheted up its social distancing measures to Level 2. This means all public museums and libraries, large scale conference halls, and high risk facilities such as bars, clubs, and door-to-door sales businesses have been shut down. Senior care facilities were ordered into “cohort isolation” and all kindergarten, elementary, junior, and senior high schools switched to distance learning for July 2 and 3. It’s as yet unclear what will happen with schools next week.
The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters updated its detailed guidelines for multi-purpose facilities and events. Since May 27, context-specific virus prevention and hygiene guidelines have been applied to regional festivals, popular swimming spots at mountain streams, water sports facilities, swimming pools, logistics centers, and goshiwon (small dormitory-style rooms for students studying for exams). Today five more types of facilities and events (memorial events, training facilities, academic conferences, dormitories, and exhibitions) were added to the list. The events should encourage online participation and limit the number of people on site. School dormitories should assign only one person per room. The dormitory guidelines will be a major dilemma for universities and students in the fall semester.
Besides the above list another set of guidelines for public facilities was announced in the same briefing. The guidelines are for public transportation, restaurants, places of worship, theme parks, beaches, public baths (including jjimjilbangs or saunas), concert halls, and noraebangs (karaoke rooms). On public transportation everyone should keep their masks on and refrain from eating or drinking. In restaurants, people should wear masks while moving about or talking—basically at all times except when eating. In places of worship there should be no loud singing (including choral singing) or speaking, and no communal dining.
These guidelines are nothing new, and they all seem common sense by now. The question is whether they will be kept to and how rigidly they will be enforced. Generally people in Korea have been following at least the face mask guidelines on public transportation without much complaint. But with the temperature rising to all time highs this June, there have been a couple of cases where people have refused to wear masks in subways and on buses, leading to some violent arguments with other passengers and transportation staff. A woman who was arrested for screaming at other passengers and delaying the metro for about ten minutes by refusing to wear her mask later explained that she couldn’t due to a health condition. She regrets over-reacting, but she still thinks the regulation is an overreach against her human rights, saying “the government wants to tame the citizens”.
Jul 1 — 4pm
Infections: 12,850 | Cleared: 11,613 | Under treatment: 955 | Deaths: 282
(As of Jul 1, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
It’s already July and the coronavirus is still alive and well. This weekend another place of worship, this time the Gwangreuk Temple in Gwangju, was identified as a major cluster linked to 14 cases. One observation by the KCDC on June 30 was that infection cases from these recent religious gatherings have tended to be among those in their 20s and 30s, which means the mortality rate is falling accordingly. The Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC) repeated its request that places of worship adhere strictly to disease prevention guidelines, adding that further transmissions may force the authorities to consider stronger enforcement measures.
Korea will prescribe remdesivir, an antiviral medication used to treat Ebola, to treat severely ill Covid-19 patients starting today. The Korean government has signed a contract to import remdesivir through the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Korea. The price of further shipments will be negotiated starting in August, and we can expect fierce competition with other countries for the limited supply.
Also starting today the national and local governments will check on businesses employing migrant workers. Migrant worker dormitories provided by these businesses tend to be closely packed, housing 10 or 12 people at a time. Many of the businesses have not been adequately disinfecting facilities and equipment or communicating proper information to the employees. Foreigners also generally have more difficulty obtaining officially certified face masks in Korea. Government officials will start regular inspections at these facilities from today. They have also assured that undocumented migrants need not report their legal status if they want to get tested.
There’s been some confusion after a recent report by the news channel SBS, which stated that the KCDC had found in a study that 0.1% of the Korean population already have the antibody for Covid-19. The news report reasoned that, since 0.1% of the population is about 50,000 people and so far the number of confirmed cases is about 12,000, there must be around 40,000 more people who have already had Covid-19 without showing symptoms and now have the antibody.
But the KCDC clarified on June 30 that this news report was a distortion of their actual findings. The study collected only around 3000 blood samples throughout April, May, and June, and half of those were collected from medical facilities in Seoul. The results cannot simply be extrapolated to the rest of the country. It also doesn’t imply any meaningful results on whether people who have these specific antibodies have actually developed immunity. More details of this research will be announced officially this week.
Limited number of people may now attend sporting events, Channel News Asia (Eng)
Europe opens borders to South Korea starting July 1, Forbes (Eng)
No, we don’t know yet if 0.1% of Koreans already have immunity, Donga Science (Kor)