Virus infects one Korean locally

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Virus infects one Korean locally

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Residents of Asan, South Chungcheong, throw eggs at Interior Minister Chin Young, center, who asked for their cooperation with the government’s plan to house Koreans airlifted from Wuhan at the Police Human Resources Development Institute located in Asan on Thursday. [YONHAP]

Two more people in Korea were diagnosed with the new coronavirus Thursday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to six.

The sixth patient did not visit Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, and contracted the virus in Korea from another patient, the first such case.

Local health authorities announced that Korea’s fifth patient is a 32-year-old Korean national who visited Wuhan on a business trip and returned home last Friday. He was being monitored by health officials. On Thursday, his test results turned out positive, and he was transferred to a government-designated hospital for quarantine treatment.

Health officials identified the sixth patient as a 56-year-old Korean man who was in the physical proximity of Korea’s third confirmed patient, a 54-year-old Korean man who recently returned from Wuhan. The sixth patient was also being monitored for possible symptoms before test results turned out positive Thursday. He’s been transferred to a government-designated hospital for quarantine.

The first confirmed patient in Korea was a 35-year-old Chinese woman who traveled from her home in Wuhan to Incheon International Airport on Jan. 18 to spend the Lunar New Year holidays with friends in Korea and Japan. She was immediately transferred to a nearby hospital for quarantine after airport officials detected symptoms of the virus upon her arrival.

The second, third and fourth patients, all of whom are Korean men in their 50s, were diagnosed over the Lunar New Year holidays shortly upon their arrival from Wuhan. The third patient was the most heavily scrutinized by the government - and criticized by the public - for roaming around the busy district of Gangnam after returning from Wuhan, where he was living, on Jan. 20.

Local health officials said it appeared patient No. 3 went near 74 people from Jan. 20 to Jan. 26, in restaurants, a coffee shop, a hotel and a plastic surgery clinic, mostly in either Gangnam District, southern Seoul, or Ilsan, just northwest of Seoul in Gyeonggi.

That means that more people who came within a certain distance of the third patient could soon be diagnosed with the virus, given that the incubation period is 14 days and the virus can be transmitted from human to human.

Officials said the third and fourth patients didn’t show any signs of the virus when they arrived at the airport in Korea.

As local concern about the virus grows, President Moon Jae-in threatened “stern” measures against producers of fake news about the coronavirus Thursday, saying false information about the disease impedes the government’s efforts to contain the outbreak.

In a meeting with cabinet members and top officials of local government offices at the Seoul Central Government Complex in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, Moon said it was imperative that authorities “respond sternly” against “fake news that goes beyond freedom of expression,” highlighting that creating and spreading untrue details about the virus is a violation of the country’s criminal code.

Moon’s warning came as local police have been investigating false rumors about the coronavirus spreading on social media platforms such as YouTube, online forums and KakaoTalk.

One such rumor that spread online earlier this week was that a high school student in Suwon, Gyeonggi, was confirmed as Korea’s fifth coronavirus patient. Another rumor was that someone believed to have been infected with the virus lived in Changwon, South Gyeongsang.

“No matter how high quality [the government’s] disease control system is,” said Moon, “it can’t work properly without trust” from the public. Moon ordered health officials to reveal all information about the virus transparently, quickly and as specifically as possible.

On the upheaval in the central Chungcheong provinces where Koreans returning from Wuhan will be quarantined, Moon said he “understands” the people’s “anxiety” but asked for their cooperation, saying his government would make sure to keep the quarantine measures under control.

The Korean government relayed plans this week to evacuate some 700 Koreans living in Wuhan via four chartered flights and isolate them in the National Human Resources Development Institute in Jincheon County, North Chungcheong, which is used for training government officials; or the Police Human Resources Development Institute in Asan, South Chungcheong, where police officers train.

The quarantine announcement immediately drew a backlash from Jincheon County and Asan residents.

In regard to Moon’s fake news order, the Korea Communications Standards Commission, the country’s online censorship body, said it’s been looking out for fake news on the coronavirus since Monday. The Korean National Police Agency said Thursday it’s also checking major portal websites for groundless rumors, in part by designating a “monitoring agent” at each of 17 local police branches, whose job is to track down online posts claiming that an additional patient has been pronounced in a certain city or region.

Police said investigations into the Suwon and Changwon infection rumors have opened. Under Korea’s information protection laws, those who intentionally spread fake information to arouse public anxiety could face a year in prison or up to 10 million won ($8,400) in fines.

Officers Thursday warned the public against spam text messages, saying some swindlers were anonymously sending out text messages with a link that tricks recipients into clicking a URL to check out information about infected patients they know. Police said they blocked access to the website and are investigating the case.

As local government offices take their own measures to contain the outbreak, the provincial government of Jeju Island said Thursday that it was in discussions with the Ministry of Justice to temporarily suspend a visa waiver program for Chinese visitors.

Since 2002, Chinese nationals have been allowed to visit Jeju without a visa for up to 30 days. Jeju’s announcement hints the measure could be rolled back for a while.

The Korean Medical Association took a bolder step Thursday in confronting the issue, advising local authorities in a statement to reduce or block all flights from China to Korea.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, YOON SUNG-MIN AND RHEE ESTHER [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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