Zero infections: Small cities in South Korea vigilant to defend coronavirus-free status

This photo provided by the city of Tongyeong shows local officials and volunteers holding a hand sanitation campaign at a market in the southwestern coastal city on May 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

This photo provided by the city of Tongyeong shows local officials and volunteers holding a hand sanitation campaign at a market in the southwestern coastal city on May 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

SEOUL: South Korea has proved that it stands at the bleeding edge in the global war to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

The government’s decisive and unwavering efforts to administer massive, non-stop tests since the early stages of the crisis have paid off handsomely — with the nation reporting zero new local cases from Monday to Thursday.

Within the country though, some regions take more pride compared to others from reporting zero infections so far. While major cities have seen cases ranging from hundreds to thousands, with the southeastern metropolis of Daegu single-handedly reporting over 6,800 infections, a score of smaller municipalities have managed to evade even a single case so far.

City and health officials in these municipalities, including Jecheon, Tongyeong and Gongju, are well aware that their zero-infection streaks could come to a halt any given day, especially in light of the government’s decision to move away from strict social distancing and adopt what it calls “everyday life quarantine.”

Local governments consider their situation fortunate. At the same time, they remain on heightened alert from an expected increase in cross-regional travel, reopening of schools and public and private gatherings.

These concerns come amid fears that a new wave of local transmissions could explode after 13 new local cases were reported Friday.

A 29-year-old male patient in Yongin, south of Seoul, was confirmed to have visited a total of five clubs and bars in Seoul’s popular foreign neighborhood of Itaewon during the extended holiday. Authorities said the new cases were linked to the Yongin patient.

“The crisis isn’t over, and we’re not certain how things will unfold,” Lee Woon-sik, head of infectious disease management team at the Jecheon city health center, told Yonhap News Agency over the phone.

Jecheon is located 118 kilometers southeast of Seoul in North Chungcheong Province. With a population of some 134,000, it is the only city out of the four in the province that has not seen a single case of infection.

“We’re on heightened alert as schools are preparing to reopen along with the government’s everyday life quarantine policy. As students come within close quarters in classrooms, we cannot predict how the virus could spread,” Lee said.

She said the city plans to continue with daily disinfection measures for its 140 public facilities, including libraries, museums and welfare centers.

Health officials in Tongyeong, a coastal city in South Gyeongsang Province, have checked temperatures of outside visitors arriving via its express bus terminals.

The program started when Daegu, located 114 kilometers north of Tongyeong, became the nation’s epicenter of the virus following mass infections of people linked to a church of the Shincheonji religious sect in February.

With a population of some 130,000, Tongyeong is the only city out of eight in the province that has not reported any cases. Despite it being a popular vacation destination with a mild climate all-year round, the coastal city has seen its hotel and resort business plummet in the past three months due to the outbreak.

The city, however, saw a spike in visitors during the recent extended holiday that ended Tuesday.

Park Seung-gi, head of sales at Tongyeong Marina Resort, a key tourist resort in the city, said the resort was booked full during the May 31-June 1 period.

“We’re asked a lot from outside travelers about why Tongyeong remains infections free,” Park said. “I think travelers feel relatively safe when spending time in Tongyeong. It’s rather the local people that are somewhat reserved when seeing an increase in outside travelers.”

Expecting more visitors down the road, city officials are boosting campaigns in key tourist destinations, putting out more promotional materials and hand sanitizers.

“The city’s central market has seen an increase in travelers during the holiday. We’re increasing campaigns at the market to promote hand sanitation and mask wearing,” an official at the city’s health center said.

Jeon Soon-jeong, head of the infectious disease management team in the city of Gongju, said she is in a mental state of both relief and constant anxiety.

“I’m not at ease at all,” Jeon responded when asked about Gongju having no reported infections.

Gongju is one of the three cities in South Chungcheong Province that hasn’t been hit by a coronavirus infection. Three counties — Dangjin, Geumsan and Yesan — also remain infection-free so far.

“It’s not just the health center staff but entire divisions at the city hall that are preparing against possible outbreaks in their respective areas.”

Jeon added, “We’re aware that the everyday life quarantine policy was introduced to revitalize the economy. But if the public behaves as though the crisis is over, the local governments will have a hard time containing possible outbreaks.”


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