South Korean troops disinfect the forecourt of the main rail station in Daegu, the city most stricken with Covid-19 infections. Photo: AFP

South Korea’s number of confirmed Covid-19 cases surged to 3,150 on Saturday, with 813 new cases being diagnosed since Friday.

In a country which has the second-largest number of cases outside neighboring China, Saturday saw the fourth consecutive daily increase in new infections. One more person died, bringing the total nationwide death rate in the outbreak to 17, according to the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or KCDC.

On February 19, there were a mere 51 cases nationwide, but numbers have been surging since then the first case was reported from within the congregation of a church with over 200,000 members nationwide.

South Korean confirmed covid-19 cases

Wed Feb. 19: Total 51 cases.

Thurs Feb. 20: New cases: 53. Total 104

Friday Feb. 21: New cases: 100. Total 204

Saturday Feb. 22: New cases: 229. Total 433

Sunday Feb. 23: New cases: 169. Total 602

Monday Feb. 24:  New cases: 231. Total 833

Tuesday Feb. 25: New cases: 144. Total: 977

Wednesday Feb. 26: New cases: 284. Total: 1261

Thursday Feb 27: New cases: 505. Total: 1,766

Friday: Feb 28: New cases: 571.Total: 2,337

Saturday Feb 29:  New cases: 813. Total: 3,150

Data: Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Though the disease is now nationwide, in all cities and provinces,  nearly 90% of cases – including 2,055 as of February 29 – are in the southeastern city of Daegu,  where the church is headquartered, as well as in a nearby county, Cheongdo.

The major question now hovering over the nation is how many members of Shincheonji’s congregation will prove to be infected. That is impossible to predict; as of Saturday afternoon, 35,182 persons were being tested nationwide. So far, 88% of the church’s worshippers have reportedly been surveyed, though not tested.

Meanwhile, apparently in the face of public pressure, a group of conservatives have called off their weekly weekend anti-government demonstration in central Seoul. Seoul City Hall has banned mass protests due to the coronavirus scare.

Touch  spread?

Massive public anger has been aimed at Shincheonji.

Countless fingers have been pointed at the church’s mass ceremonies – in which worshippers kneel, tightly packed together. In such close proximity, in an indoor environment, droplets pose a significant risk – most especially if those who unknowingly have the virus, are not wearing masks.

However, similarly close-range worship conditions are common to many churches and are not unique to Shincheonji. Nor is a lack of masks.

Currently, questions are hanging over the prudence of Vatican authorities. Church services have been cancelled in northern Italy but on Wednesday, Pope Francis, who appeared to be suffering from a cold but was not wearing a mask – which can prevent infection via droplets – oversaw a mass and physically greeted worshippers in St Peter’s Square. The Vatican has declined to say if he has been tested for the coronavirus.

Other priests and worshippers on the day were also un-masked.

Given this, another worrying possibility about Shincheonji’s sky-high transmission rate has been raised.

The church has been criticized for its secrecy, and its premises nationwide require registered worshippers to press fingerprint scanners to enter. A South Korean TV news report has suggested that the fingerprint scanners themselves could be a vector for viral transmission.  

Certainly, the virus appears able to exist on surfaces. A paper published in The Journal of Hospital Infection by researchers in Germany concluded that, based on previous studies of related viruses, at least some coronaviruses could remain infectious on materials such as metal, glass, or plastic for up to nine days.

Fingerprint scanners are “totally suspect” said Ogan Gurel, a non-practicing American doctor and professor based in Seoul who has advised European businesses in Korea on Covid-19.

“There are often [in Korea] fingerprint scanners for people to enter offices, but you don’t have hundreds of people – in offices you have just one person touching it,” Gurel told Asia Times. “But if you have hundreds of people, that is high risk.”

He did not address other widely touched buttons – such as in elevators – and was reluctant to pinpoint a single issue behind Shincheonji’s infectiousness.

“I would be hesitant to say it is the hand-entry thing – there are multiple factors,” he said. “It could be a perfect storm of their practices, their secrecy and the fingerprint scanners.”

Gurel noted that the SARS-CoV virus, for reasons to do with its biological structure, is more durable than most viruses, so it is able to live on external surfaces. “There have been reports of this living up to nine days on external surfaces,” he said, adding that this was “somewhat unusual.”

Gurel advised people, when out in public in locations where the virus is known to be present, or in places such as shops, eateries and public transport where it is impossible not to touch surfaces, to use alcohol sprays to disinfect surfaces and to wash hands as frequently as possible – as well as making maximum use of hand sanitizers.

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