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Nightclub cluster stokes fears of second wave

KOREA (Korea herald/ANN) -- Seoul’s nightclub revelers are at the center of a potential second wave of infections in Korea, with the nonchalance of young people at reduced risk of falling critically sick cited as a threat to the novel coronavirus containment efforts.
In less than a week since a 29-year-old man was confirmed infected on Wednesday - the first to be found linked to the infections in Itaewon, a Seoul neighborhood known for its nightlife - at least 86 visitors of the nightclubs there had tested positive as of Monday.

A street in Itaewon appears empty on Friday, following reports of cases linked to nightclubs in the district.    --Photo Yonhap

Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a press briefing Monday that the nightclub cases were “expected to surge further” in the week ahead.
The disease control agency’s epidemiological investigations show most nightlife businesses in the northern Seoul district started opening up before and during the holiday weekend falling April 30 to May 5.
Ahead of the long weekend, complacency was rife in the air with malls, cinemas, gyms and other public spaces beginning to crowd like before the coronavirus.
This public behavior was encouraged by the government, with President Moon Jae-in taking his aides out for lunch on May 1 at a local restaurant in an apparent endorsement of the easing in distancing measures.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has reiterated the country was ready to reopen, saying the decision to relax the virus countermeasures was meant to relieve the strain the extended outbreak has placed on the economy.
Experts say the impact of the brief breach in distancing will not be immediately visible due to the long incubation period, which can be up to 14 days.
“This means there may be a second wave building up that will not be picked up in the numbers until much later,” said former KCDC head and pulmonologist Dr. Jung Ki-suck.
“Let’s not forget that Korea’s worst peak was preceded by days of zero cases, when the government downplayed the virus and top officials made public appearances without wearing face masks.”
In a Facebook statement Friday, infectious disease specialist Dr. Lee Jacob of Seoul’s Hallym University Hospital said the easing of restrictions “will inevitably lead to an increase in patients.”
Speaking about the nightclub outbreak, he said it was “just as feared” and urged caution on the part of young people: “Spare a thought for more vulnerable groups.”
In a survey of 1,813 adults conducted between April 30-May 1 by public health communications professor Yoo Myoung-soon of Seoul National University, only 23.3 percent of respondents in their 20s said they refrained from visiting close-contact settings. This contrasts with 54.7 percent of respondents in their 60s who said they were avoiding public areas.
A Seoulite, 32, who works in insurance in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, said he was appalled by a colleague of a similar age who said he would rather contract the disease, gain immunity and “get it over with.”
He said the notion “honestly gave (him) nightmares” about bringing the virus home to his medically frail parents.
“I live with my parents who are both in their 60s. One of them has had cancer. I worry I might put them at risk from my contact with the careless coworker.”
Positive cases are more common among younger populations in Korea, particularly those in their 20s who account for 27 percent of 10,909 total nationwide cases.
Approximately 65 percent of 81 cases confirmed in the past week were in their 20s or 30s, compared to only one case over 70.
Sociologist Shin Jin-wook, who researches generational divide, said Korea’s 20-somethings tended to value personal liberty more than their older counterparts.
“People in their 20s are more sensitive to infringements of freedom,” he said, which can serve as a partial explanation for their tendency to shirk distancing rules.
The consequences of young people defying health warnings could be life-threatening for older populations.
A 84-year-old woman was confirmed with the virus on Monday after dining with her 30-something grandson, who was among the thousands of partiers at Itaewon.
Her risk of dying from the infection is much geater at 25 percent than that for her grandson, which is less than one percent at 0.17.
Young coronavirus carriers can spread the disease in their communities unwittingly while asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic -- the “silent spread” Jung of KCDC has warned of.
Jung said nearly 40 percent of known nightclub cases were without symptoms, with overwhelming majority of them under 40.
Tracking down the coronavirus cluster in Itaewon is projected to prove tricky, as the five nightclubs in question cater to sexual minorities.
Getting people to seek testing after virus exposure had been a challenge for authorities with the secretive religious sect at the center of the country’s first wave of the outbreak.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said that out of 5,517 people on the nightclubs’ guest lists, some 3,100 were unreachable as of Sunday. To prompt voluntary disclosure, the city said it would allow people to get tested without having to identify themselves.
Korea’s transparency with the travel histories of infected individuals may be intimidating certain groups from openly seeking necessary medical help, according to psychiatrist Dr. Koo Ja-hyun at a mental health center in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province.

(Latest Update
May 13
, 2020

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