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South Korea Links Over 200 Covid Cases to Religious Settlement


South Korean officials said on Tuesday that they had shut down a religious facility in the city of Cheonan after 210 of its 427 residents tested positive for the coronavirus this week, an outbreak that comes as the country’s cases surge to record highs.

At least 191 of the settlement’s residents who contracted the virus were unvaccinated, said Lee Sunhee, the director of the infectious disease control team for Cheonan, in South Chungcheong Province. Officials did not release the name of the religious organization, citing disease control laws meant to protect privacy.

Churches around the world have been at the center of several outbreaks throughout the pandemic. In South Korea, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which many South Koreans consider a cult, was at the center of more than 5,000 cases that drove the country’s first virus wave. Officials have blamed the church for obstructing efforts to fight the pandemic by failing to provide a full list of its members to the government.

South Korea has since largely avoided major outbreaks and begun slowly reopening to some visitors. While cases have surged to record levels in the past two weeks, they have remained relatively low compared to much of the world: 5 daily cases per 100,000 people, compared to 29 in the United States, 36 in Singapore and 159 in Austria.

“The situation itself is not so bad nationwide,” said Kwon Jun-wook, deputy chief at the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency and director of the Korea National Institute of Health, last week, adding that it was “not severe enough to warrant halting the reopening.”

But officials have said the number of severe cases has imposed a burden on the country’s health system. Intensive care units have reached 77 percent capacity in and around Seoul over the past week, the director of K.D.C.A, Jeong Eun-kyeong, said on Monday, adding that the agency would continue to work on securing additional beds.

The members of the religious settlement in Cheonan lived and worshiped together. About 70 of them had participated in a large kimchi-making event on Nov. 15 and 16, said Kim Eunchong, an official in the infectious disease control division of the province’s health office.

Mr. Kim said that these cases have made the settlement the site of the largest cluster of coronavirus cases that the province has ever recorded — and some residents have yet to be tested.

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