Seoul has reported its sharpest one-day increase in the number of coronavirus cases as the discovery of a large cluster of infections at a call centre dashed South Korean hopes that the outbreak was coming under control.
Health officials on Wednesday reported 242 additional coronavirus cases in the country, almost double the number of cases reported a day earlier and reversing four-straight days of declining new infections.
Park Won-soon, the capital city’s mayor, said more than 90 new coronavirus cases were linked to the insurance company call centre in the capital’s south-west. Some 500 other workers at the centre were being screened. Among the new confirmed cases were employees’ family members.
The sudden jump in infections in the city of 25m people has ratcheted up fears that the coronavirus outbreak could flare up again.
“I’m very concerned as we’re seeing an increasing number of coronavirus cases in Seoul. Until now most of the cases were from Daegu, but now with the call centre, things seem to be getting worse in Seoul,” said a working mother of two. “Hopefully our company continues working from home next week.”
Large numbers of office employees in Seoul are already working from home, and the start of university, school and kindergarten semesters has been pushed back.
The revelation of the new virus cluster in the city, which is home to about half the country’s population, shattered initial optimism that the government’s programme of mass public testing and isolation measures had led to a steep decline in new cases over recent days.
The measures, mostly focused on Daegu, have resulted in the administration of more than 220,000 tests with around 10,000 carried out each day, one of the highest rates in the world.
Kim Tark, an expert in infectious diseases at South Korea’s Soonchunhyang University Hospital, said the call centre case should serve as a warning to people around the world grappling with the virus not to let their guard down.
“The recent decrease in the number of new cases seemed to give an illusion to the Korean public that the coronavirus pandemic had entered the stable phase, which it hadn’t,” he said.
Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-biggest city, has been at the heart of the country’s outbreak with the largest share of cases linked to a pseudo-Christian sect known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
On Monday, Chung Sye-kyun, the prime minister, linked the then-slowing infection increase rate to the governments’ efforts to screen the sect’s more than 200,000 local members for the virus.
Mr Park said that two Shincheonji members worked at the call centre but had tested negative for the virus.
The mayor vowed that city officials would “act in a clear and meticulous manner” to stop widespread transmission from the cluster.
South Korea has reported 7,755 coronavirus cases of which 60 have died. The death rate from the virus has remained below 1 per cent despite one of the world’s highest infection tallies outside of China. Seoul has 193 cases, compared to 5,794 in Daegu.