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Missionary school emerging as new Covid-19 hotbed in South Korea

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SEOUL – A missionary school that is emerging as a new hotbed for Covid-19 infections in South Korea is now under fire for obstructing health officials who are struggling to contact all recent visitors to go for testing.

More than 700 cases were traced to the BTJ Centre for All Nations in the rural Sangju city, 270km south-east of Seoul, as at Thursday (Jan 14).

The number is feared to spike in days ahead, triggering fears of a mass outbreak that could complicate the government’s anti-virus efforts that have finally brought daily infection figures down to 500 or so from a record high of 1,241 last month.

South Korea reported 524 cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, raising the total to 70,728. The death toll stood at 1,195.

More than 1,300, or 44.3 per cent, of the 3,000 people who had visited BTJ from Nov 27 to Dec 27 have yet to be tested.

Health officials said many of them remain uncontactable, while some refused to get tested.

Founded in 2014, BTJ – short for Back To Jerusalem – is described as a “radical” Protestant school that offers lessons on evangelism and healing, among other topics.

Two BTJ officials are being investigated for failing to cooperate with government orders to quickly provide a list of 500 or so people who attended a major event held from Nov 27 to 28 that allowed infections to spread beyond the school.

Health officials had warned earlier this week that BTJ‘s “uncooperative attitude could cause a significant amount of damage to society”.

They found that 229 people traced to BTJ so far had visited the school. They then spread the virus to a further 484 people living in eight other cities and provinces, including Seoul, the surrounding Gyeonggi province and Daejeon city.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun warned on Thursday of strong measures against those obstructing government anti-virus measures, noting that the spread of infections traced back to BTJ is “alarming” to the public.

The government will not tolerate or condone irrational behaviour, such as interfering with epidemiological investigations or refusing to go for testing, that blatantly threaten people’s lives and public safety,” he said during an inter-agency meeting.

Mr Chung also criticised BTJ for filing a suit against Sangju city for shutting down the facility last week after infections started spreading rapidly.

The first case there was detected on Dec 3.

BTJ apparently held numerous gatherings late last year that drew more participants than it was allowed to have under tightened social distancing rules. Under Level 2, for instance, religious events were allowed to fill only 20 per cent of seats.

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This is worrying as the rate is similar to two previous major outbreaks linked to churches – the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu city last February and Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul last August.

Shincheonji has accounted for 5,214 cases while Sarang had 1,173.

Shincheonji was accused of hindering contact tracing efforts by omitting names of members and not declaring all their facilities, although its leaders insisted they were cooperative.

Meanwhile, the government has reiterated that there will be stiff penalties for people violating tightened social distancing rules, such as a ban on social gatherings of more than four people.

Police data showed that more than 400 offenders have been caught since early December, nearly half of them were owners of nightlife establishments.

Another 77 people were nabbed for gathering in groups of more than four people, a rule imposed on Dec 23. Offenders can be fined up to three million won (S$3,600).

More on this topic   Related Story South Korea rolls out mass Covid-19 testing for 70,000 prisoners and staff   Related Story South Korea‘s Covid-19 negligence: Korea Herald   Related Stories:  Related Story Over 6,200 in S’pore received Covid-19 vaccine so far; 4 vaccination centres by end-Jan Related Story Elderly to start getting Covid-19 vaccine earlier, from end-Jan: Lawrence Wong Related Story Japan expands Covid-19 emergency beyond Tokyo to cover Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka Related Story Worker from India found to have Covid-19 during routine testing, first dorm case in S’pore since Dec 15 Related Story No Covid-19 herd immunity in 2021 despite vaccines: WHO Related Story Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine appears effective against mutation in new coronavirus variants: Study Related Story askST: What do we know so far about children who are infected with Covid-19? Related Story Global coronavirus cases surpass 90 million in battle on new variant Related Story What we do and don’t know about new Covid-19 mutations Sign up for the ST Asian Insider newsletter to get exclusive insights into Asia from our network of overseas correspondents.