The Asian country has been lauded for its quick action on the pandemic, significantly reducing the rate of new infections in recent weeks, but a resurgence in case numbers has raised concerns the country could enter a second wave outbreak.
Officials reported 35 new infections across the country as of midnight on Sunday, the second consecutive day of new cases of that magnitude and the highest numbers in more than a month.
Most of the new cases were linked to an outbreak at a number of Seoul nightclubs and bars, many of them catering to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or LGBTQ community.
That has raised complications for officials desperately trying to track those who might be infected in a nation where open homosexuality is often taboo and LGBTQ people still face discrimination, including job loss and hate speech.
Authorities have tested 4,000 people who had patronized the night spots in the Itaewon neighborhood, but were still trying to track down around 3,000 more.
“Our top priority is to minimize the spread of the infections in the greater Seoul area,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a meeting with government officials on Monday.
Chung called for local governments to work with police to track down the missing patrons, some of whom authorities suspect of intentionally avoiding being tested.
“We should quickly find and test them, and speed is key,” Chung said.
The outbreak has highlighted the potential unintended side effects of South Korea’s invasive tracing and wide public disclosure of some patient information as part of its approach to tackling the coronavirus.
Health Ministry official Yoon Tae-ho acknowledged concerns that individuals within the LGBTQ community could be outed against their will or face discrimination if they came forward.
“We release the movement of confirmed patients to encourage anyone who might be exposed get tested voluntarily,” he told a briefing. “We urge you to refrain from distributing patients’ personal information or groundless rumours, which not only hurts them but can also be subject to punishment.”
The Health Ministry said 79 people have tested positive in connection with the Itaewon outbreak, including people who had travelled to the capital and subsequently returned home.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who put the number at 85, including 51 Seoul residents, pleaded with clubgoers to be tested, promising that personal information would be protected and warning that people caught evading testing could be fined.
“If Seoul was penetrated, the nation is at risk,” he said, noting the city currently has around 700 of the nation’s 10,909 cases, which include 256 deaths.
The spike in cases comes just as the South Korean government was easing some social distancing restrictions and moving to fully reopen schools and businesses, in a transition from intensive social distancing to “distancing in daily life.”
The 69 cases reported by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or KCDC over the past 48 hours were equivalent to the number of cases it recorded over the entire previous week.
Seoul’s education superintendent proposed delaying reopening schools scheduled to begin on Wednesday by one week in light of the new outbreak, Yonhap news agency reported.
Technology firms like Kakao and Naver suspended plans to return to office work starting Monday, after two cases linked to the club outbreaks were reported at an IT firm, TmaxSoft, company spokespersons said.
TmaxSoft said in a statement on Friday that it had shut down its office near Seoul and plans to have all of its employees go through coronavirus testing as part of precautionary measures.
In a speech to the nation on Sunday, President Moon Jae-in warned that “it’s not over until it’s over,” adding that the new cluster shows the virus can spread widely at any time.