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Virus variants, infection cluster in Daejeon put authorities on alert

Disease officials are work Monday to carry out disinfection and restrict access at the IEM School in Daejeon. (Yonhap)
Disease officials are work Monday to carry out disinfection and restrict access at the IEM School in Daejeon. (Yonhap)
South Korea is on alert as a new infection cluster traced to a missionary school in Daejeon could serve as a major threat to the country’s response to its ongoing third COVID-19 wave.

Since the outbreak first came to light Saturday, Korea discovered a total of 127 fresh cases traced to the IEM School, a Christian missionary training center in Daejeon, by Sunday’s end, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

The boarding school, made to recruit and train teenagers as international missionaries under a Christian missionary society named IM, was found to have responded slowly to the virus spreading among its students.

The IEM School is a private institution that has not obtained official certification as an educational center under the Ministry of Education.

The Daejeon city government said Monday that the school failed to provide COVID-19 checks for its 122 students and 37 employees despite finding a case among them on Jan. 12. The school also did not make any response until discovering two new cases from students who visited their homes over the weekend until Sunday, the city government said.

Authorities are worried as the school could serve as a route for the number of new cases to skyrocket as it did with other religious institutions.

“We are worried that the outbreak could escalate into a second Shincheonji or BTJ crisis,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during a COVID-19 response meeting Monday, stressing the need to promptly respond and discover hidden cases.

“The alternative boarding school has been running with a nationwide network, so it is important that we respond to this situation very seriously.”

From Jan. 4 to Jan. 15, 120 students were reported to have entered the boarding facility of the IEM School, sharing the same facility amenities for almost three weeks. It was also noted that up to 20 students shared a room.

Students traveled to their homes across the country during weekends, and school employees had run information sessions for prospective students and their parents recently, which hints that the outbreak could spread beyond the region.

The IEM School was ordered to close for three weeks, and authorities are preparing measures to run COVID-19 checks for those who came in contact with confirmed patients from the missionary school and other educational facilities the IM runs across the country.

The school and its higher-ups are to be investigated as well for failing to abide by the current virus control rules.

The looming threat from the missionary school also poses a concern for authorities that have been contemplating whether to adjust their social distancing rules ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.

The government has been reviewing whether to implement new social distancing guidelines for the next month as its current rules are set to expire by the end of this month.

At the moment, the capital region, consisting of Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, is under Level 2.5 social distancing rules, and the rest of the country is under Level 2 rules.

Business operations are restricted after 9 p.m., and private gatherings of five or more are banned until Jan. 31. Indoor gyms, cafes, karaoke establishments were given exceptions to open under strict adherence to virus control rules.

Optimism had been high until the new cluster was discovered in Daejeon as the country has been reporting increasingly fewer cases per day after passing the peak of the third COVID-19 wave to date at the end of December.

Korea by end of Sunday added 437 new COVID-19 cases – 405 domestically transmitted and 32 imported from overseas -- raising the accumulated total to 75,521. The figure is up from 392 cases reported a day earlier and an average of 392.6 cases reported throughout last week.

By Sunday’s end, Korea had also reported a total of 1,360 deaths from the coronavirus, up 11 from a day earlier. The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition reached 275, down from 282 people a day earlier.

The country conducted 29,362 tests throughout Sunday, down from 37,627 checks done a day earlier.

Authorities have also remained cautious over easing its social distancing rules due to potential influx of more contagious COVID-19 variants traced to Britain, South Africa and Brazil.

The country has so far reported a total of 27 cases of mutated virus strains, nine of them added Monday afternoon, and officials are working to verify details of the strains and find out whether the vaccines Korea has secured are effective against them.

Korea is planning to launch a nationwide COVID-19 vaccination program next month with enough doses for 56 million people. The government is also in discussion with Novavax to secure additional vaccines for 20 million people.

By Ko Jun-tae (