Omicron makes leap to Seoul in 3 int'l students
The Omicron variant of Covid-19 reached Seoul, health officials said Tuesday, after three international university students tested positive, raising worries about the more contagious variant spreading in Korea’s main population center.
The students — who attend Seoul National University (SNU), Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) and Kyung Hee University — visited a church in Michuhol District in Incheon on Nov. 28. That church is the center of the first wave of Omicron cases, after a pastor couple in their 40s, Korea’s first Omicron patients, brought the disease in from Nigeria.
The church offers services in Russian and one of its websites is in Russian. All three students are from Russian-speaking countries.
The other 33 Omicron cases detected so far have been in other parts outside Seoul, such as Incheon, Gyeonggi and North Chungcheong.
To prevent the spread of the variant, the three universities announced measures on Tuesday.
SNU said it has isolated close contacts of its confirmed case.
As that student lived in a dormitory, the university relocated its Covid-19 rapid molecular test station from near the engineering college to in front of the dormitory, and is planning to conduct rapid tests regularly on all dorm residents. It also allocated a separate dorm building for Covid-19 patients.
HUFS announced it will switch to online classes from Wednesday until Dec. 14, and restrict operations of a library and some other facilities used by the infected student until Dec. 11.
The student at Kyung Hee University also lived in a dorm, and all of its residents are undergoing PCR tests. After contact tracing, the university said its Omicron patient was found to have no close contacts. It said its academic calendar for the second fall semester will remain unchanged.
Other universities are worried about the strain's spread and are considering switching to online classes too.
Including the three foreign students, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) announced 12 Omicron cases were newly found nationwide as of Monday midnight. Since reporting its first cases on Dec. 1, the country’s total Omicron caseload ballooned to 36 in less than a week — most tied to the Incheon Church.
After the initial patients participated in a church program for foreigners on Nov. 28 attended by 411 people, infections spread to other church members, their families and acquaintances. Officials believe a total of 780 people visited the church on Nov. 28.
Most of the foreign Omicron patients were found to be unvaccinated.
Although no violations of public health rules were found at the church, such as ignoring social distancing and mask-wearing measures, authorities believe the infected members contracted the virus variant through small meetings held between them.
“[Omicron] transmission could have occurred through private gatherings held before and after the church service,” said Park Young-joon, head of the epidemiological investigation team at the Central Disease Control Headquarters, in a briefing on Monday.
Health authorities are tracking down around 1,300 people who are suspected to have come into direct or indirect contact with the Omicron patients as of Monday midnight, and among them, 607 people are classified as close contacts.
In the meantime, some raised claims of unfairness about religious facilities not being included in the list of establishments requiring vaccine passes.
The government earlier mandated the use of vaccine passes — a vaccination certificate or a negative Covid-19 test result issued within 48 hours — when entering places deemed prone to virus infection, such as noraebang (singing rooms), nursing homes and bars. After a jump in Covid-19 cases and the spread of the Omicron variant, authorities added more indoor facilities last week, such as restaurants, cafes, hagwon (cram schools) and libraries — but religious facilities like churches were still left out.
Korea’s first wave of the pandemic in 2020 was driven by the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, believed by many to be a cult, which is linked to more than 5,000 Covid-19 cases.
Amid recent controversy over the exclusion of religious facilities from the list of vaccine pass establishments, health officials said Tuesday that the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is “under discussion” with religious circles about stricter public safety measures for religious facilities.
“We believe there is a need to strengthen distancing measures additionally for churches,” Son Young-rae, senior epidemiological strategist at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, said Tuesday.
Korea’s Covid-19 cases continued to worsen, with the number of critically ill Covid-19 patients hitting a record-high of 774 on Tuesday, up 47 from the previous day.
The daily new Covid-19 figure stood at 4,954, the highest figure reported on a Tuesday, raising the caseload to 482,310.
Sixty-four more people died of the virus, bringing the death toll to 3,957.
Among the fatalities, Korea confirmed the second death of a child under the age of 10.
The child, who had an underlying disease, was confirmed to have died while being treated for the coronavirus, according to health officials.
BY SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]