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Korea’s virus fight at critical juncture: official

Government pledges ‘excessive’ response as number of confirmed cases rises to 15

South Korea saw the number of cases of the Wuhan coronavirus climb rapidly over the weekend, stoking fears of possible community transmission in the country.

Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said Sunday afternoon that containment efforts are “at a critical juncture,” pointing out instances of transmission in the absence of symptoms.

“The government places utmost importance on the safety of the people and will take protective steps so exhaustive that they might be deemed excessive,” he said.

Regarding the travel ban imposed on the same day, Park said, “While the World Health Organization has said restricting movement of people and goods is ineffective, considering the pace at which the new coronavirus is spreading in China, blocking the inflow of carriers is necessary.”

Director of Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Jung Eun-kyeong speaks during a briefing Sunday. (KCDC)
Director of Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Jung Eun-kyeong speaks during a briefing Sunday. (KCDC)

Health officials on Sunday confirmed Korea’s 15th case of the novel coronavirus originating in Hubei, a central Chinese province, with 87 out of 414 people showing symptoms placed under quarantine.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said three additional patients had been diagnosed with the virus on Sunday morning, bringing the total to 15 from 12 on Saturday.

The 13th patient, a 28-year-old Korean man, was among the first batch of Wuhan evacuees who returned to Korea on Friday. He is now being quarantined at the National Medical Center in central Seoul.

A 40-year-old Chinese woman became the 14th person to be confirmed with the virus, only a day after her husband, a Chinese man, 48, was found to have been infected Saturday. The couple is receiving isolated treatment at the Seoul National University Hospital in Bundang, a city in southern Gyeonggi Province.

Worries are mounting that the 48-year-old, the 12th case of the virus here, may pose risks of “superspreading” the disease, having visited at least six cities -- Seoul, Incheon, Bucheon, Suwon and Gunpo in Gyeonggi Province, and Gangneung, Gangwon Province -- over the 12-day period since entering country on Jan. 19 through Gimpo Airport.

The latest and the 15th patient is a Korean man, 43, who arrived at Incheon Airport from Wuhan on Jan. 20 on the same plane as the fourth patient. Authorities say the man, who has since been kept under watch, started showing respiratory symptoms on Saturday and was put in quarantine at Armed Forces Capital Hospital in Bundang.

The KCDC said 683 people identified to have come into contact with infected persons are being closely monitored.

The KCDC on Friday introduced a test kit capable of quick detection of the viral infections, to be available at private medical institutions nationwide from early February. The new diagnostic kit would shorten the screening period from a day or two to six hours.

“Early detection is key to block further transmission,” KCDC Director Jung Eun-kyeong said in a Sunday briefing.

Jung advised that those showing symptoms of a fever and cold should first consult with the local health centers or the KCDC hotline at 1339 before visiting hospitals or clinics. She also asked that those who have traveled within the past month to Hubei avoid outside contact for at least 14 days.

The Health Ministry said the government would intensify efforts to contain the domestic transmission of the virus.

The ministry said the number of designated hospitals for treating patients in isolation has been increased from the previous 288 to 532. In addition, the KCDC hotline service will add 62 employees by Tuesday to have 188 full-time workforce.

According to the WHO situation report on Saturday, the nascent outbreak believed to have started in end-December has infected at least 11,953 persons globally, nearly 98 percent of them in China. The first death outside China was reported in the Philippines on Sunday, with the death toll in China surging past 300.

By Kim Arin (