WASHINGTON - The number of coronavirus cases in South Korea skyrocketed to 833 on Monday, a roughly 27-fold increase in just six days. South Korea now has the second-highest number of cases after China.
When did infections sharply surge in South Korea?
South Korea had initially appeared to cope well in containing the spread of the virus. After reporting its first case on Jan. 20 the number of cases remained low until Feb. 18, when the country had 31 cases and no deaths. But a few days later, hundreds of new patients were confirmed every day.
With 11,631 people undergoing diagnostic testing, South Korean authorities expect the caseload to peak within the next week.
Fifty-five percent of the total infections are linked to a fringe religious congregation in the fourth-largest city of Daegu. A 61-year-old Korean woman known as Patient No. 31 worshiped at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony before she was confirmed positive.
Officials say at least 1,000 members attended services with her the same day. Officials also point out their way of worship caused the mass infection. Jung Eun-kyung, director of the South Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a briefing “many people sit closely next to each other in a sealed-off location for an hour or two when they worship … such close contact in an enclosed space can cause mass infections.”
South Korean authorities are testing the entire 9,300 members of the church for the coronavirus. Nearly 600 police are searching for 242 members who went missing.
How do authorities plan to contain the massive spread?
South Korean authorities are hopeful they can contain the mass infection as it is linked to a particular city and a specific religious group. Authorities rolled out a "4-week plan" to stabilize the city of Daegu.
In the first two weeks, 28,000 people with cold symptoms of coughing and runny nose will be tested for the coronavirus infection. Those who test positive will receive treatment and be quarantined for two weeks.
Authorities are on high alert to stop spread in Daegu from spilling over into the entire nation.
How is South Korea’s medical sector coping with the outbreak?
South Korea has the reputation of successfully handling the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003 and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2015.
Rapid diagnostic tests for coronavirus has been made available since late January at Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at 17 environmental research institutes.
Local governments are ordered to designate "coronavirus-only hospitals" in every city and province by the end of the month. The hospitals are moving to increase the number of “negative-pressure” rooms to keep air from seeping out to the rest of the hospital.
The government is also recruiting medical professionals to work at these specialized hospitals.
What does highest threat alert level mean?
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday raised the coronavirus alert to the “highest level”. This is the first time in 11 years that the country has raised the virus alert level to the highest. The last time it happened was in response to influenza A (H1N1).
The latest measure empowers the government to lock down cities, and restrict the movement of people. Seoul is not considering travel restrictions on China, instead it will focus administrative resources to containing the virus domestically.