Jun 29 — 4pm — Three levels of social distancing
Infections: 12,757 | Cleared: 11,429 | Under treatment: 1,046 | Deaths: 282
(As of Jun 29, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Church-based transmissions resurfaced again last Friday, just in time for the weekend. So far, 28 cases have been traced to Wangsung Church in Gwanak District in Seoul, 22 cases to Juyoungwang Church in Anyang, and seven cases to Central Baptist Church in Suwon. Transmission in these cases occurred through small group meetings as well as Sunday services. The KCDC pointed out that during worship team practice and meals the attendants had neglected to wear masks. The government considered whether to add places of worship to the list of high-risk facilities, but decided instead to further clarify the social distancing guidelines.
If you’ve been confused about the Covid-19 alert levels, you’re not alone. On June 28 the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Central Disaster Management Headquarters announced the revised levels and guidelines for clarification. The new guidelines aimed to clarify the three levels of social distancing, explaining that “distancing in daily life” is the name given to the campaign for Level 1 of social distancing.
While there are several factors that determine the alert levels, the main factor is the number of new cases confirmed each day over the last two weeks. Level 1 (less than 50 new cases) is when the number remains low enough for the designated public medical facilities to handle. At this level, new clusters may appear but can be quickly suppressed. People can go about their daily activities while individually following hygiene guidelines like wearing masks. High-risk facilities must follow stricter guidelines than others. Schools can operate through a combination of in-class and distance learning. Public businesses should have at least a third of their employees working at home, and private businesses are also recommended to follow this guideline.
Korea is currently at Level 1, but if the number of new cases were to increase to the point that designated medical facilities could not treat all the patients (50 to 100 new confirmed cases each day in the past two weeks), the government would declare Level 2 measures. At Level 2, gatherings of more than 50 people indoors or more than 100 people outdoors would be prohibited, including festivals, exhibitions, weddings, funerals, and other private gatherings. High-risk facilities would be ordered to shut down while other medium-risk (eg, hagwon private academies with under 300 capacity, internet cafes, indoor water parks, religious facilities, restaurants, cafes, cinemas, and public baths) and low-risk facilities (eg, shopping malls, hair salons, libraries, and museums) would have to limit the number of people gathering at once. (These facility categorizations may change in the future.) Schools would be allowed to continue through in-class and distance learning, but would need to minimize the number of students gathering at one time. Public businesses would be required to have at least half of the employees working at home, and private businesses would be recommended to follow the same guideline as well.
If the number of new confirmed cases were to reach over 100 daily for two weeks, and if the number were to double twice in the space of a week, the situation would be deemed beyond control and Level 3 would be announced. At this level, all except essential businesses (hospitals, drug stores, gas stations, funeral homes, and markets) would be shut down, and everyone would be ordered to stay at home. Gatherings of more than ten people would be prohibited. Schools would be conducted entirely online or go on hiatus. Public workplaces would also have to switch to working entirely from home, and private businesses would be recommended to follow suit. The Level 3 measures are similar to the lockdowns implemented in Europe and the US, but Korea has not had to resort to them yet since the outbreak of the pandemic. Hopefully we never get to see them.
Jun 26 — 4pm — Tuition refund for online learning
Infections: 12,602 | Cleared: 11,172 | Under treatment: 1,148 | Deaths: 282
(As of June 26, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Firstly, a bit of good news today is that after testing hundreds of people who had worked on the two Russian cargo ships this week (where the crew had tested positive), the KCDC announced that all the results have come back negative.
Our main focus today, however, is education. South Korea has a relatively advanced infrastructure for information and communications technology, but distance learning online during the Covid-19 pandemic has still been difficult and unsatisfactory. As the semester ends, a large number of university students are about to file a class action lawsuit against their universities and the Ministry of Education demanding a partial tuition refund. By June 24 over 2700 students from 72 universities had joined the suit, which will be filed on July 1 by MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society, a Korean NGO. The National University Student Council Network is leading the cause. They are demanding financial transparency from universities and a tuition refund of at least 30% for being unable to use school facilities such as libraries and laboratories and for the terrible quality of online education. The network conducted a satisfaction survey in April (of 6261 students) where only 6.8% of them were “very satisfied” or “generally satisfied” with the spring semester’s distance learning.
Two universities, Konkuk University in Seoul and Hansung University in Incheon, have decided to give partial refunds in the form of scholarships. But other universities have so far remained unresponsive. Private universities in particular are claiming that their financial situations are already getting worse with the decrease in the number of students each year due to general population decline. They are also claiming a semester of distance learning has not significantly reduced their costs. If anything, setting up new infrastructure and systems is costing even more. From the students’ perspective, they would at least like to hold discussions on university finances to negotiate a refund, but the institutions have not been transparent. The argument boiled over when an administrative faculty member at Hanyang University dismissed a student by saying, “If you really want to discuss these issues why don’t you come back with a hyeolseo” (Hyeolseo is an oath or demand written in blood to convey the seriousness of the cause). The shocked student then went ahead and posted an actual hyeolseo online, which sparked a hyeolseo relay by other angry students.
Where does the government fit in? Universities claim they are waiting on the MOE’s direction and the government’s decisions to subsidize a tuition refund. Meanwhile the MOE has been stating that universities, as the beneficiaries of tuition revenue, are entirely responsible for the refund. Students are criticizing the Ministry of Education for standing back and not leading a three-way discussion on the issue. They also reason that government spending in this matter is necessary because university tuitions not only affect students and their education but take up a major part of household spending too.
Tuition refund debate: students vs universities, Hankyoreh (Kor)
Impending suit against universities and the Ministry of Education, Seoul Newspaper (Kor)
Radio interview with the student who wrote the hyeolseo, NoCutNews (Kor)
June 24ー4 pmーSecond wave in Seoul: Are there enough public medical care facilities?
Infections: 12,535 | Cleared: 10,930 | Under treatment: 1,324 | Deaths: 281
(As of June 24, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
On Monday, 16 out of the 21 crew on a Russian cargo ship, Ice Stream, currently docked at Gamcheon Pier in the Port of Busan, tested positive for Covid-19. Tests were conducted when officials were notified by the shipping company that its former captain had tested positive for the virus. The crew of another Russian shipt, Ice Crystal, docked nearby, also tested positive. 175 people had come in contact with these two boats while off-loading shipments. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters admitted that Russia has not been on the list of countries whose ships must go through an on-board quarantine process before the crew disembark. It has also been difficult to gather information on all the ports the ships pass through before arrival. Russian ships will from now on be required to report all crew who have disembarked during the previous 14 days and whether any of them are symptomatic. They must also go through an on-board quarantine process.
Transmission in restaurants is also a growing concern. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters announced a strategy to avoid larger gatherings, keep appropriate distance, and ventilate spaces. One of the points was to encourage restaurants to have outdoor seating and customers to order take-out and delivery.
So is this the second wave everyone has been warning about? On June 22 the KCDC announced that its officials are indeed observing a second wave in the Seoul Metropolitan Region (SMR), and other regions are at the beginning stages of fresh outbreaks. While this wave isn’t nationwide, and it hasn’t reached an explosive stage to the point of overwhelming the medical system, the fact that Jung Eung-kyeong, the director of KCDC actually called the current outbreaks in SMR a “second wave” is significant. She said that, contrary to predictions, the virus is not abating in these summer months. Korea must flatten the curve way down while we still have time to prepare for a predicted wave come this fall. Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul also warned that, at this rate, the number of daily new cases could reach 800 in ten days. He announced that if daily new cases in Seoul average 30 or more over three days or if 70% of the hospital beds set out to treat coronavirus patients are filled, he will have the city return to the heightened “social distancing” alert level.
The big issue is that if daily new cases continue to rise, SMR’s public medical facilities could very quickly reach capacity. According to a report by The Hankyoreh on June 19, of the 1769 beds available in public hospitals designated to treat infectious disease, 959 beds remain available. If 100 new cases are identified daily, it would take only ten days for the hospitals to reach full capacity. Also, the recent increase in the numbers of elderly people testing positive for the coronavirus means an increased demand for ICU care. On June 17 there were only 47 ICU beds in SMR and 126 nationwide available for new coronavirus patients. The current SMR response plan makes each city and province treat the patients within their own areas. Only when the number of daily new cases reaches 100 or more can they transfer patients to facilities in other regions. But the medical workers are concerned that the facilities and the staff are already overwhelmed and burnt out.
How is this possible when there are so many hospitals in Korea? In 2017 South Korea had 12.3 hospital beds per 1000 people, second only to Japan (13.1 beds) among OECD countries (OECD average is 4.7). But only 10% of those beds belong to public hospitals (1.3 beds per 1000) making Korea trail most other OECD countries. Plus only about 10% of all doctors in Korea work in public hospitals. It isn’t that private hospitals and their medical workers are not contributing. Doctors and nurses in private hospitals are regularly sent to public hospitals to give additional support. But unlike public hospitals, private hospitals cannot be mobilized by the government or forced to shoulder loss of revenue by clearing hospital beds for the coronavirus patients. This means that 78% of the patients in March and April were treated in public hospitals. The first line of response remains with the public sector, and many are calling for the government to majorly revamp funding for public medical care facilities.
For now, though, the KCDC announced today that it will slightly lower the criteria for discharging coronavirus patients. Previously, asymptomatic patients had to test negative twice in a row on weekly tests spanning 14 days. According to the new criteria, these patients should either continue to show no symptoms for 10 days after testing positive, or should test negative twice over 24 hours or more after showing no symptoms for 7 days after testing positive. As for patients who do show symptoms, they previously had to show improvement to the point of no longer taking fever medication and testing negative twice over a span of 24 or more hours. The new guidelines allow these patients to meet either of two criteria: 1) 10 days after first symptoms, has no fever for at least 72 hours, or 2) 7 days after first symptoms, has no fever, and tests negative twice over 24 or more hours. Patients whose symptoms improve could also be moved out of isolation wards and university hospitals to lower level facilities.
Second wave in the SMR, Korea Economic Daily (Kor)
100 people for 10 days would overwhelm public medical facilities in SMR, Hankyoreh (Kor)
Medical care workers in public hospitals, Hankyoreh (Kor)
Debates over public and private medical care system, MediGateNews (Kor)
June 22ー4 pmー’Internet quarantine service’
Infections: 12,438 | Cleared: 10,881 | Under treatment: 1,277 | Deaths: 280
(As of June 22, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
On Saturday the KCDC reported 67 new cases of Covid-19 (36 domestic and 31 from overseas sources), a new daily high. The number has gone down since then, but officials continue to warn the nation about a second wave. The percentage of untraceable cases rose from 8.51% (May 24–June 6) to 10.6% (June 7–June 20) in the past two weeks. The percentage of cases in people 50 years and older rose from 11.7% (second week of May) to 50% (third week of June), which means that more people are experiencing it as a serious illness.
Since May, as the summer approaches, more migrant workers have been entering Korea, which means an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases from overseas. Many of the migrants are coming from South Asia looking for farm work. So far they have been cooperating with the testing and quarantine measures, and no large outbreak has occurred. But to prevent overwhelming the official testing and tracing capacity, the government is reducing the number of entry visas and airline routes from Pakistan and Bangladesh in particular.
Yesterday the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters announced that door-to-door sales businesses, logistics centers, large scale hagwon (300 or more capacity) and buffet restaurants will be included in the list of high risk facilities (currently indoor concerts, group exercise gyms, noraebangs, clubs and bars) starting June 22. This means that all these businesses must take attendance with KI-PASS and check customers’ symptoms, ensure employers and employees wear masks and wash hands regularly, appoint someone to oversee these tasks, and ensure a 2-meter (or at least 1-meter) distance between customers. Customers should cooperate with these measures and also keep 2 meters (or at least 1 meter) away from others.
Door-to-door sales businesses in Daejeon are turning out to be the source of outbreaks in other parts of the country. For example, a high-schooler in Jeonju tested positive for the coronavirus on June 17. Her steps were traced until officials found that five days prior she had crossed paths with two people from Daejeon for about five minutes at a restaurant (according to the restaurant CCTV footage). The two from Daejeon later tested positive. They were attending a sales training event on the upper floor of the same building as the restaurant. The 78 event attendees were identified and ordered to self-quarantine. This was some breathtaking detective and surveillance work.
The other side of such efficiency is that personal information is inevitably publicized in news reports as well as on social media. Publicizing some personal information along with their routes for the sake of tracing and transparency has been a key part of Korea’s Covid-19 response, what Koreans call K-Banghyeok (K-Quarantine).
But this doesn’t mean that Koreans don’t value their privacy. When a person tests positive, the local government posts their information for only 14 days. But that information may be copied and spread on social media and internet communities such as ‘mom cafes’ (internet chat groups for mutual support and often gossip). It frequently leads to community ostracization and cyber bullying against the infected person or those mistakenly assumed to be infected. Businesses revealed to have been visited by infected people may lose customers even after the stores have been disinfected. As noted before, a study found that Koreans are more worried about the social repercussions of catching the virus than their own health.
In response, the Songpa and Gwanak district governments in Seoul started operating an ‘internet quarantine service’ (인터넷 방역단) to search for and delete any Covid-19 patient information remaining online after two weeks. They generally operate in response to requests, often filed by the Covid-19 patients and their families. The service is working with the Korea Internet and Security Agency to delete information on major internet portals and contacts individuals to take down their posts. The Ministry of the Interior and Safety has recommended this system as a model for other local governments as well. Today the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters reported that the Korea Communications Commission has also been searching for information that is overdue for deletion. By June 19 it had deleted 954 posts containing personal information and 1,145 posts containing route information remaining online after 14 days.
South Korea’s Tracking Of Covid-19 Patients Raises Privacy Concerns, NPR (Eng)
Free Covid-19 testing for undocumented migrants, Korea Times (Eng)
Link between Daejeon and Jeonju, Pressian (Kor)
The internet quarantine service, Joongang Ilbo (Kor)
June 19ー4 pmーTip of the iceberg?
Infections: 12,306 | Cleared: 10,835 | Under treatment: 1,191 | Deaths: 280
(As of June 19, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Warning signs continue with 49 new cases today, 32 by community spread and 17 from overseas. Seeing a steady stream of international cases, this morning the Prime Minister—and Head of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters—Chung Sye-kyun ordered the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Employment and Labor to come up with responses concerning overseas cases, including those among the migrant labor force.
We have already seen that churches, nursing homes, door-to-door sales, and logistics facilities are key places through which the virus spreads. The most recent cases in Sejong and South Chungcheong Province were traced back to Daejeon and its church and door-to-door sales business clusters.
In response, the local governments in Seoul, Incheon, Daejeon, Gyeonggi Province, and South Chungcheong Province have inspected thousands of small-scale religious facilities, door-to-door sales businesses, and nursing homes to ensure they are strictly following guidelines. Incheon in particular ordered 1,540 religious facilities to suspend meetings from June 2 until further notice, and has prohibited the headquarters of door-to-door sales businesses from holding gatherings and events since June 11. Gyeonggi Province is sending back-up medical workers to nursing homes and has so far conducted Covid-19 testing for 117,770 employees of senior care and disability care facilities. As for the logistics facilities, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport inspected 4,300 of these throughout the country from June 1 to June 11 to ensure they are taking attendance, wearing masks, maintaining distance between workers, and disinfecting their warehouses and equipment.
There are limits to testing and tracing after outbreaks surface, though. The recent cluster in Daejeon that appeared on June 15 was the first case in the city since May 30, and appears unrelated to the cases in the Seoul Metropolitan Region (SMR). This means that for over two weeks silent infections through asymptomatic people had been spreading throughout Daejeon. The cases that are only now being identified may be just the tip of the iceberg.
A warning from South Korea: the ‘fantasy’ of returning to normal life, The Financial Times (Eng)
A good summary of Korea’s pandemic response so far.
Worrisome news from Daejeon, News1 Korea (Kor)
June 17ー4 pmーHow Koreans are experiencing the pandemic
Infections: 12,198 | Cleared: 10,744 | Under treatment: 1,145 | Deaths: 279
(As of June 15, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
It seems new outbreak clusters are developing in Daejeon, one in a church and another at an unregistered pyramid scheme company, making a total of 15 confirmed cases. These clusters are the first significant flare-ups outside the Seoul Metropolitan Region in recent weeks.
On Tuesday the Deputy of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters pointed out that many other countries are experiencing a second wave after easing social distancing and lockdown measures. They are closely monitoring the current outbreak in Beijing. The point is, as always, to stay alert, practice good hygiene, and keep a safe distance.
Public perception and emotional response to Covid-19
A team of researchers led by You Myoungsoon (Associate Professor of Public Health Science at Seoul National University) is conducting what is turning out to be a monthly survey on public perception of Covid-19. Each round has surveyed around 1,000 adults over the age of 18 with the same set of questions each time, plus a few more topical questions. The fifth and latest survey took place on May 13–15. The following are a few points I was able to gather from news reports and a radio interview where You interpreted the results. There are other significant points on age differences and medical workers, but they will be left for another day when I can find the actual report.
Distancing in daily lifeーtoo soon: One change from the fourth survey in April is that fewer people now think that lowering the alert level from ‘social distancing’ to ‘distancing in daily life’ was timely. In the fourth survey, 7 out of 10 had responded that they were willing to accept the higher risk of infection once prevention measures were eased. Families and businesses were being hit hard financially. However, after the ‘distancing in daily life’ campaign was implemented on May 6, a series of major infection clusters appeared in Seoul, starting with the night clubs in Itaewon, and by mid-May over half of respondents answered that it was too soon to transition to ‘distancing in daily life’.
Financial impact on individuals: Another significant result is that about 50% of those surveyed had taken cuts to their pay, were on unpaid leave, or had been laid off. Among the age cohorts, those in their 20s, who are most likely to have part-time or temporary jobs, were most affected. On a related question on their general outlook for the future, about 60% of the respondents viewed the Covid-19 situation as an opportunity, while 40% said it was a crisis. Those who characterized the pandemic as a crisis tended to be either in their twenties or on a low income (earning less than 2 million KRW per month).
Anxiety and anger: In each survey, the most frequent emotion felt by respondents when encountering news about Covid-19 has been anxiety, with anger coming second. The percentage of those who felt angry significantly rose on the second (February) and fifth surveys. Open-ended responses for the reasons for anger revealed that, other than the government and its pandemic response, anger was directed at specific groups. The second survey was conducted during the first major outbreak in the religious group Shincheonji, and the fifth survey soon after the outbreak at Itaewon night clubs. This means that when there is an identifiable population that does not seem to be cooperating with public guidelinesーthe Shincheonji, the LGBTQ community linked with the Itaewon night clubsーthe level of anger spikes. Professor You also notes that the major target of public indignation has been moving from one group to another in the past few months, from the Chinese, to the Shincheonji, and to the LGBTQ community.
Personal health versus societal judgment: In the latest survey, while only 10–12% of respondents said it was likely or highly likely for them to contract the virus personally, over 70% answered that contracting the virus would have a serious impact on their lives. When asked what would be the most serious consequence of contracting Covid-19, the number one answer was “impact on others” (33.2%). “Impact on finances and livelihood” (25.2%) was second, closely followed by “impact on personal health” (25.1%).
In another question when asked the reasons for fear, 67.5% answered that they feared “an asymptomatic person with the virus may be in close vicinity”. The answer was followed by “a symptomatic person who has refused to be tested or self-isolate may be in close vicinity” (62.3%), and “if I test positive for the virus I may be judged or disadvantaged by others around me” (57.1%). The fear of personally contracting the virus was fourth at 54.6%.
The worry about societal judgment isn’t necessarily grounded in Koreans’ community-orientedness (compared to the West’s individualism). Professor You explained that these results seem unique to Korea, given the characteristics of the pandemic here and the government response to it. So far the fatality rate in Korea has been pretty low (around 2–3%), so people are generally optimistic about their own health prospects. On the societal level, personal information on infected individuals, such as their sex, workplace, area of residence, and daily routes is made public for two weeks from the day they last had direct contact with another person. The information is specific enough for acquaintances to identify each other. And the media tends to focus on the minority of individuals that transgress norms and guidelines for self-quarantine and hygiene. All this leads to individuals fearing societal rather than health consequences.
The result looks like a combination of both selflessness and self-consciousness. It would be interesting to find studies in other countries for comparison.
News reports on the 5th National Survey on Perceptions of COVID-19, Yonhapnews (Kor)
You Myoungsoon, head of research, explains the results and trends in a radio interview, Nocutnews (Kor)
Press briefing (June 16) by the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (Kor)
On the Itaewon night club outbreak back in May and backlash against LGBTQ community, CNN (Eng)
June 15 — 10am — Distancing in daily life, with caveats
Infections: 12,085 | Cleared: 10,718 | Under treatment: 1,090 | Deaths: 277
(As of June 15, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Thankfully no new major cluster broke out this weekend, but the rising number of infections remains concerning. At yesterday’s daily briefing the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters on Covid-19 reported that for the fortnights of May 17–30 and May 31 – June 13, the average number of daily new cases rose from 28.9 to 43.6. The percentage of silent infections rose from 7.4% to 9.2%, and the percentage of new infections confirmed during self-isolation stayed below 80%.
The ‘distancing in daily life’ campaign with the additional stronger prevention measures for the the Seoul Metropolitan Region (Seoul, Incheon, Gyeonggi Province) is continuing beyond the initially announced end date of June 14. The official English guidelines regarding ‘distancing in daily life’ state:
- “Stay home for 3–4 days if you are sick.
- Keep a distance of two arms’ length between you and other people. (Wear a facemask in: 1) any indoor publicly used venue 2) outdoor environment if you can’t keep 2 meter distance from other people)
- Wash your hands for 30 seconds. Cough/sneeze into your sleeve.
- Ventilate your space at twice a day and disinfect regularly.
- Keep in touch with family and friends while maintaining physical distancing.”
The stronger measures for the Seoul and surrounding region add to this list further items such as postponing or canceling outings and events (such as social gatherings, church gatherings, and family events), requiring employees in medical care, education, and social service facilities to take 3–4 days sick leave when feeling ill, minimizing visits to care and medical facilities, requiring masks on all public transportation and public facilities, and specifically encouraging everyone to return home promptly after work.
There is another set of guidelines specifically for businesses (my translation):
- Direct sick employees to stay home.
- Implement flexible work hours (such as working from home, staggered office hours) and use off-days (to take care of family, annual leave, sick leave).
- In business facilities keep distance among people (2 meters, or at least 1 meter) and lower crowd density.
- Provide hand sanitizers in communal spaces such as break rooms and changing rooms, direct employees to wear masks, ventilate at least twice a day, and regularly disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
- Workplace dining hours should operate in shifts, and seats should either face the same direction or be in alternating arrangements.
- Indoor smoking room usage should be prohibited. Smokers outdoors should be directed to keep a 2-meter (at least 1-meter) distance and restrain conversations.
- Appoint a disease prevention officer to check on employee health conditions daily. Keep a record of visitors and follow preventive measures.
These guidelines are backed up by government inspections of high-risk facilities such as night clubs, noraebangs, and other facilities designated as high risk by local governments. Businesses that do not follow the guidelines may be fined or suspended.
This strengthened prevention campaign was extended indefinitely with further plans to expand testing for non-symptomatic residents and to open two new residential care facilities. Hagwons and internet cafes are now also required to implement the KI-PASS check-in system.
Latest government report on Covid-19 released on June 11 (Eng)
This is the official English language report released each month since March this year. The latest report covers economic response strategies plus other English language information in the annex. Check out other reports through links on this press release.
June 12 — 6pm — Churches and the elderly
Infections: 12,003 | Cleared: 10,669 | Under treatment: 1,057 | Deaths: 277
(As of June 12, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Community spread continues through the recent clusters at the Coupang logistics center, the church gathering, Richway (the medical supplier), and the table tennis gym.
One major trend is in the increase in transmissions among the elderly. Out of 139 positive cases related to Richway, 44.6% are over the age of 65. (The other 42.4% are between the ages of 40 and 64). Three other small clusters are appearing in nursing homes and senior day care centers in and around Seoul. In response, the national health insurance is subsidizing 50% of the cost of testing all new entrants into nursing care facilities. Staff of nursing care facilities are prohibited from visiting clubs, bars, karaokes, and internet cafes, and discouraged from attending church or social gatherings.
Another trend is that secondary transmission often happens in churches. The KCDC has linked eight major clusters of secondary transmissions (99 cases) to the Richway cluster. Three of these clusters were churches (21 cases). Religious communities are especially prone to virus transmission through congregational singing and communal dining.
The KCDC noted that the recent clusters in churches and other places initiated in basements and enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. The gatherings also involved singing, eating, and physical activities that can easily spread through saliva droplets. The KCDC noted that these spaces did not observe proper hygiene guidelines such as masks and hand washing.
A special virus prevention campaign (수도권 방역강화 조치) has been in effect in the Seoul area since May 29. This includes wearing mandatory masks on public transportation, postponing unnecessary outings and gatherings, and staying home from work for three to four days when sick. Businesses should also ensure at least one meter (preferably two meter) social distancing among customers and patrons. However, recent transmission patterns show that the guidelines have been ineffective.
Earlier today, the KCDC announced their analysis of population mobility over three consecutive weekends, one before and two during the campaign. The results of smartphone GPS tracking, credit card usage, and public transportation usage show that there there hasn’t been a significant decline in mobility despite the public campaign.
Certainly everyone I see on public transportation is wearing their masks as directed by the campaign. But as summer begins, people seem less vigilant about keeping their distance or wearing masks at other venues, let alone staying home. The officials decided to extend the Seoul area campaign until the average number of daily new cases falls below ten.
June 10 — 4pm — Checking in with KI-PASS
Infections: 11,902 | Cleared: 10,611 | Under treatment: 1,015 | Deaths: 276
(As of June 10, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Total infections linked to a table tennis gym in Yangcheon District rose to 54, while the Richway cluster grew to 93 cases. Outbreaks since the end of May have affected many elderly people and the number of deaths is also rising.
Infection related to Richway also spread to a long-term housing shelter for low-income seniors in Seoul’s Guro District where eight tested positive. The shelter is run by Korean Chinese Church (중국동포교회). Local officials tested the church and shelter attendees, as well as those in other shelters in the area, and all 278 tested negative. Despite the low rate of spread, the Korean Chinese community fears that the news of infections might stoke further xenophobia, similar to what happened earlier in January.
One piece of good news is that the high schooler who tested positive after visiting Lotte World (see June 8 entry) tested negative after a second test. All those who were tested after coming in contact with the teenager, including 638 theme park employees, tested negative.
Starting today all citizens who visit facilities designated as high risk (night clubs, bars, daytime discos, karaoke bars, indoor standing concert halls, indoor group exercise facilities, and other facilities designated by local governments) are to report their attendance via their smartphones. KI-PASS (Korea InternetーPass 전자출입명부) is the name of the electronic check-in system. Individuals will receive a single-use QR code from Naver (a Korean online platform) for the facilities to scan. The app sends personal information and location records to the Korea Social Security Information Service (SSIS) and Naver. When necessary, the KCDC can request data from the two agencies and combine them in order to gather personal information and visit records for contact tracing purposes. All data is to be destroyed after four weeks. After a 20-day grace period, non-cooperative facilities may be fined as much as 3 million KRW or be ordered to shut down. Other QR code issuing companies will gradually be included in the scheme, but as of today Naver is the only company issuing codes. One concern is that children, seniors, foreigners, and non-Naver users may have difficulty signing into the Naver app and producing QR codes.
I followed up with the 120 Dasan Seoul Call Center, and the Covid-19 testing program for non-symptomatic residents does not cover foreigners. Anyone who has symptoms or has crossed paths with infected persons should contact the KCDC Call Center at 02-1339.
Prejudice against Korean Chinese, Hankook Ilbo (Kor)
The KI-PASS system, Yonhapnews (Kor)
Potential inconveniences compared to Singapore’s QR code check-in system, OhmyNews (Kor)
June 8 — 11 am — Back to school
Infections: 11,814 | Cleared: 10,563 | Under treatment: 978 | Deaths: 273
(As of June 8, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
The number of daily cases shot up to over 50 again on Friday and Saturday. The number of cases connected to Richway, a door-to-door distributor of healthcare products, rose to 45 on June 7. Richway primarily recruits elderly customer-distributors by word of mouth with frequent promotional and educational events. Additional infections connected to Coupang (total 133) and small churches (total 82) seem to be slowing down. On Sunday a high school senior who had visited Lotte World in Jamsil tested positive for the virus. The department store and theme park immediately closed down for two days. The high schooler got tested voluntarily after hearing that an infected person had passed through the same mall six days previously. Anyone who visited the mall and park on Friday June 5 between noon to 9:00 PM is encouraged to get tested.
The Lotte World case is especially worrisome to the parents of school aged children. But today, most 5th and 6th graders and junior high first years (5–7th grade) switched back from online to on-site schooling. They were the last batch of students to return to school after attendance first resumed with high school seniors on May 20. But in the Seoul Metropolitan area, with daily reports of new cases, around 500 schools remain closed. And all schools are having students attend in batches a few days a week, rather than all at once.
Seoul is rolling out free Covid-19 testing for its non-symptomatic residents starting today to curb silent infections. The tests will be conducted through a “pooling” method, in which five to ten samples are tested together. If the pool tests positive each person in the pool will be tested again separately. The program will run from June to December this year and people can sign up on the Seoul government website to be tested in one of seven hospitals in Seoul. A maximum of 1000 tests can be conducted each week on a first-come-first-served basis, meaning that people might have to apply again the following week should too many people sign up. It is as yet unclear whether foreigners residing in Seoul are eligible for the program (I’ll follow up on this).
What social distancing reveals about East-West differences, Scientific American (En). Is there a difference between how the East and the West experience social distancing? This article floats the idea that Americans are much more worried about the psychological and physical ramifications of social disconnection than Chinese people. There is much ambiguity in terms like ‘the East’, ‘the West’, ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’. I am also not sure whether (and how) Koreans experience social distancing in culturally unique ways. It’s an interesting read, though.
Lotte World closes down! YTN (Kor)
Timeline of school closures and reopenings, News 1 (Kor)
Tests for non-symptomatic Seoul residents, Newsis (Kor)
June 5 — 4 pm — Bracing for the weekend
Infections: 11,668 | Cleared: 10,506 | Under treatment: 889 | Deaths: 273
(As of June 5, 12:00 am. Source: Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Daily totals for new infections by community spread have been in the 30s and 40s over the past week, and mostly confined to Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. As of today, the KCDC has traced 124 confirmed cases back to a Coupang logistics center in Bucheon: 79 infected employees and 45 cases of secondary transmission. Most recently, a cluster of 21 transmissions was traced back to Richway, a medical equipment company in Seoul, where the first case was identified on June 2.
Other significant infections trace back to religious gatherings. Since the first case on June 1, 76 cases were traced back to pastors of small (Protestant) churches, their wives, and congregants who met for Bible study without masks. Sunday church services have resumed over the past month and the ensuing low rates of infection have been credited to masks, hygiene, attendance taking, and strict distancing in the pews. But smaller prayer and Bible study meetings, much like non-religious social gatherings, have been less vigilant about social distancing. The KCDC asked the public, and especially religious groups, to refrain from gathering in person and observe precautionary hygiene guidelines.
It’s been about a month since the big holiday weekend in early May when the government lowered the alert level from “social distancing” to “everyday life distancing”. Cases have been rising especially in the Seoul metropolitan areas, and some infectious disease specialists are recommending that at least this region tighten back to “social distancing”. The KCDC will decide on this issue as they watch the spread this weekend and over the coming week.
Interviews with infectious disease specialists, Yonhapnews (Kor)
Considerations on heightening the alert level for Seoul metropolitan areas, Yonhapnews (Kor)
How Phantom of the Opera Survived the Pandemic, New York Times (En)