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COVID-19: South Korean pastor, church members test positive, thousands at risk

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COVID-19: South Korea pastor, church members test positive, thousands at risk
A lawyer for the Sarang Jeil Church holds a press conference on its latest COVID-19 cluster infection near the church in Seoul. (AFP)

Thousands of members of a Protestant church linked to a coronavirus cluster in Seoul have been asked to quarantine, South Korean authorities said Monday, as they accused the group’s firebrand conservative leader who has reportedly tested positive of obstruction.

The country’s “trace, test and treat” approach has been held up as a global model in how to curb the virus, but it is now battling several clusters linked to religious groups.

Over the weekend the capital and neighbouring Gyeonggi province between them home to nearly half the population banned all religious gatherings and urged residents to avoid unnecessary travel after a burst of new cases sparked fears of a major second wave.

South Korea reported 197 new infections on Monday, taking its total to 15,515, its fourth consecutive day of triple-digit increases after several weeks with numbers generally in the 30s and 40s.

The largest current cluster is centred on the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, headed by Jun Kwang-hun, a controversial conservative pastor who is a leading figure in protests against President Moon Jae-in.

A total of 315 cases linked to the church had been confirmed by the end of the weekend, officials said Monday, making it one of the biggest clusters so far, and around 3,400 members of the congregation had been asked to quarantine.

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Around one in six of the church members tested so far had been positive, “requiring rapid testing and isolation,” said vice health minister Kim Gang-lip.

But a list of members provided by the church was “inaccurate,” he said, making the testing and isolation procedure “very difficult.”

The situation amounted to an “early stage of a large-scale outbreak,” said Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If the outbreak is not controlled right now, the number of confirmed cases will increase exponentially, leading to collapse of the medical system and enormous economic damage,” she said.

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