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New case with unknown transmission route puts Korea back on alert

All pneumonia patients to be tested for virus

President Moon Jae-in has called on the public to overcome virus fears and carry on with everyday life during a visit to a traditional market last week. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in has called on the public to overcome virus fears and carry on with everyday life during a visit to a traditional market last week. (Yonhap)

South Korea reported its 29th case of COVID-19 -- the new coronavirus -- on Sunday morning, after five consecutive days without a new case.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the latest patient marks the country’s first novel coronavirus case without clear route of transmission or known symptoms.

On Saturday, the 82-year-old Korean man was taken to the emergency room at the Korea University Hospital in Seoul’s northern district of Seongbuk after he complained of chest pain.

He was not initially suspected of having the virus as he did not exhibit respiratory symptoms or other symptoms associated with the disease. He had no overseas travel history or contact with confirmed patients, either. Medical staff made the decision to test him for the virus after a lung scan showed signs of pneumonia.

The KCDC said in a Sunday briefing that the patient, who has developed symptoms of pneumonia, was not in a serious condition, but that the new case suggested the risk of community-based transmission.

The centers’ director Jung Eun-kyeong said the agency will review testing all pneumonia patients for COVID-19.

“We’re in talks with the doctors’ associations to determine to what extent the virus screening will extend, the details of which will be implemented as soon as possible,” Jung told reporters.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare, orchestrating the government response, said Sunday it would expand screening capacities from the current 5,000 suspected cases a day to 10,000 by the end of this month to enable early detection of the disease.

Health Mnister Park Neung-hoo said that the government was also pushing to repatriate citizens aboard a cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Japan. 14 Koreans are on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has docked at Yokohama, a port city southwest of Tokyo. So far, 355 of the ship's passengers have tested positive for the virus.

“We will first find out whether our citizens on board wish to be brought back home, and then begin discussions with Japanese authorities,“ Park said.

This recent development will likely strike a blow to a resurgence in public outings this weekend, boosted by a brief respite from reported infections in the past week and government efforts to encourage a return to pre-virus state of affairs.

Choi Hyun-cheol, the owner of a restaurant in western Seoul, said he saw a noticeable increase in customers over the weekend, following a period of idle business since the outbreak began.

“The flow of customers has definitely gone up again compared to the previous weekend,” he said.

During a visit to a traditional market in a central Seoul district on Wednesday, President Moon Jae-in said, “What’s more important than government measures is that citizens shed excessive fears and resume regular economic activities.”

Calling active consumption “a fundamental countermeasure” to the outbreak, Moon said he and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun were campaigning to ease virus concerns in an effort to mitigate its impact on the domestic economy.

But the KCDC on Friday cautioned against reading too much into the slowdown in numbers, urging the public to keep on the lookout.

Jung, its director, said the wave of the virus “hasn’t peaked yet” and that the trajectory of the outbreak did not suggest a downward trend.

In a Saturday briefing, Jung said the KCDC was bracing for a possibility the COVID-19 would end up as a seasonal epidemic, much like the influenza.

“We see the need for containment efforts in the long-term, and ramped-up efforts to block transmission in the community and medical institutions,” she said.

Of 29 patients infected with the virus, nine had fully recovered as of Sunday, with one more testing negative in a first round of tests. The rest were also in stable condition, the KCDC said.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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