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More urgency please

What worried our public health authorities most was the possibility of the new coronavirus spreading to local communities. If its infection routes cannot be affirmed, they cannot know where the virus came from — or may be headed. In an alarming development, a 61-year-old Korean woman from Daegu became Patient No. 31 this week and appears to have spread the virus to 14 fellow churchgoers from Daegu and North Gyeongsang.

Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), expressed deep concerns about a “new phase” in the virus outbreak. The KCDC has so far tracked infection routes of patients and isolated people with symptoms of the virus to prevent its spread. If infections spread in communities, however, health authorities cannot know who carries the virus.

It has not been confirmed if the 14 churchgoers were actually infected by Patient No. 31. But her behavior has come under scrutiny and some public disapproval. Despite exhibiting such symptoms as hyperthermia and pneumonia, she refused doctors’ recommendation for a medical test to see if she was infected with the virus. While actually hospitalized for minor injuries in a car accident, she went to the church on two occasions, and also visited a buffet restaurant. During that period, she was in contact with up to 166 people, says the KCDC.

An elementary school student was infected because her uncle, Patient No. 15, did not respect the authorities’ demand for self-quarantine. No. 15 transferred the virus to his sister-in-law, Patient No. 20, who seems to have infected her 10-year-old daughter.

The government should raise the level of crisis response to “serious” from “caution.” As we have already reached a point of not knowing all the infection routes, the government must react with a heightened sense of danger.

It should consider a ban on entry for people from all parts of China, not only Wuhan and Hubei Province, the epicenters of the outbreak. The Korean Medical Association has again urged the government to take that measure to prevent community-based infections. The government also must devise measures to effectively deal with 70,000 Chinese students studying in Korea.

In 2009, the first case of community infection from swine flu was affirmed 70 days after the first patient was found. The number of patients soared to 763,759, which took the lives of 270 people at the time. The first case of community infection from the new coronavirus appeared 42 days faster than with swine flu. It is time for all concerned parties to jointly prevent the spread of the lethal virus.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 20, Page 30
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