By Syndication The Washington Post, Bloomberg · Heesu Lee
South Korea warned of another wave of infections after reporting the highest number of cases since early March, most of which are tied to a flareup at Sarang Jeil church in Seoul. Authorities have confirmed three cases from the Yoido Full Gospel Church, the country's biggest with 560,000 members.
The Asian nation has been globally lauded for containing outbreaks without a lockdown, relying on rapid testing and contact-tracing to curb the virus's spread. In March, before the pandemic accelerated globally, South Korea had been one of the worst-hit countries due to over 5,000 cases found among members of the Shincheonji church. Religious groups, where many people gather in large congregations, have been linked to virus hotspots around the world.
"We're seeing community outbreaks from churches, cafes, restaurants, workplace and other areas, and it looks like we're entering the early phase of mass infections," Kim Gang-lip, South Korea's vice minister of health, said at a briefing Monday. "We need active cooperation from churches and their members."
Authorities said they will charge the pastor of Sarang Jeil, described as a sect by more mainstream Christians, after he violated self-quarantine rules and failed to cooperate with requests for a list of parishioners who needed testing. The pastor tested positive for the virus, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing an unidentified health official.
As of Monday, 319 infections were linked to the church in the nation's capital. There were 197 cases in the country during the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 15,515, according to Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The March outbreak was linked to the Shincheonji church in Daegu, a city about 150 miles south of Seoul.
Separately, authorities have found more than 140 cases from two churches in Seoul and Gyeonggi province. From Aug. 15, participants at any religious facility in these regions must wear a mask and are prohibited from talking or singing out loud during services, the KCDC said. Attendance must be also be recorded and social distancing maintained.
"The spread of covid-19 is expanding at a fierce speed across the country," Jung Eun-kyeong, the head of KCDC said during a briefing on Monday. "If we don't keep the spread under control now, it can make a massive damage on the economy following a collapse of the medical system with an exponential growth in confirmed patients."
The most recent surge of infections prompted the government to raise its social-distancing alert to level 2 in the Seoul Metropolitan area, which prohibits operations of "high-risk" facilities, such as allowing spectators at sporting events.
The resurgence is increasing fears for health officials who say it's tougher to trace and test members of religious sects, which could trigger wider transmission in the community. Kim said the government is having a difficult time tracking people down and obtaining the full list of Sarang Jeil worshipers.
Of the additional cases reported on Monday, 163 infections were in the Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon region -- home to almost half of South Korea's population, while nine were imported. Fatalities remained at 305, authorities said.