NATIONAL

Authorities on alert as mass virus outbreak infects 127 at missionary school

By Yonhap
  • Published : Jan 25, 2021 - 10:32
  • Updated : Jan 25, 2021 - 15:45

Students at IEM School in Daejeon, 164 kilometers south of Seoul, who contracted COVID-19 board a bus to be transported to a treatment facility in a nearby city, on Monday. The unauthorized boarding school facility has been hit by a mass virus outbreak that has infected 127 patients. (Yonhap)
State and local health authorities remained on heightened alert Monday as a new coronavirus outbreak at an unauthorized missionary school reported over the weekend has infected more than 120 students and faculty.

The number of infected people at IEM School, an unauthorized Christian missionary training school in Daejeon, 164 kilometers south of Seoul, stood at 127, according to health authorities. The outbreak was first reported on Saturday.

The school is a boarding facility that recruits teenagers aged 16 to 18 to primarily train them as international Christian missionaries, although they also teach general curriculum, such as Korean, English, math and science. The school is operated by a missionary society called IM.

According to authorities, the small living space relative to the number of students was critical to the fast speed of transmissions.

According to the Daejeon city government, the 120 students were living in extreme tight quarters, with between seven and 20 students assigned to a single dorm room. Dining tables also reportedly had no partitions installed.

School administrators were also apparently negligent despite knowing the risks, taking no quarantine-related actions or conducting tests despite seeing its first symptomatic patient on Jan. 12.

Meanwhile, health authorities in Gwangju, 140 kilometers southwest of Daejeon, said they were looking into whether a separate cluster infection at an unauthorized missionary training center there was linked to the IEM School outbreak. The facility in Gwangju has so far reported 23 patients.

Authorities are especially concerned that the outbreak could explode in a way similar to earlier high profile ones centered on other religious institutions -- the Shincheonji Church of Jesus and the BTJ Center for All Nations.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun ordered health authorities to deal swiftly with the outbreak.

"We're concerned that the outbreak could escalate into the second Shincheonji or BTJ crisis," Chung said during an interagency meeting on the COVID-19 response State and local health authorities remained on heightened alert Monday as a new coronavirus outbreak at an unauthorized missionary school reported over the weekend has infected more than 120 students and faculty.

The number of infected people at the IEM School, an unauthorized Christian missionary training school in Daejeon, 164 kilometers south of Seoul, stood at 127, according to health authorities. The outbreak was first reported on Saturday.

The school is a boarding facility that recruits teenagers aged 16 to 18 to primarily train them as international Christian missionaries, although they also teach general curriculum, such as Korean, English, math and science. The school is operated by a missionary society called IM.

IEM School has been disinfected and shut down for three weeks. IM operates 23 similar education facilities throughout the country.

According to authorities, the small living space relative to the number of students was critical to the fast speed of transmissions.

According to the Daejeon city government, the 120 students were living in extreme tight quarters, with between seven and 20 students assigned to a single dorm room. Dining tables also reportedly had no partitions installed.

School administrators were also apparently negligent despite knowing the risks, taking no quarantine-related actions or conducting tests despite seeing its first symptomatic patient on Jan. 12.

The six initial symptomatic student patients were assigned separate dorm rooms but were allowed to attend classes during the day with other classmates. They were tested only after going home over the weekend.

State and city authorities plan to take legal measures against the school after thoroughly reviewing the violations of distancing rules and antivirus guidelines.

Meanwhile, health authorities in Gwangju, 140 kilometers southwest of Daejeon, said they were looking into whether a separate cluster infection at an unauthorized missionary training center there was linked to the IEM School outbreak. The facility in Gwangju has so far reported 23 patients.

Health officials in Busan, a southeastern port city 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul, are also examining an unauthorized education facility in the city that is affiliated with the IEM School in Daejeon for possible transmission cases.

Authorities are especially concerned that the outbreak could explode in a way similar to earlier high profile ones centered on other religious institutions -- the Shincheonji Church of Jesus and the BTJ Center for All Nations.

According to Daejeon city officials, graduates of IEM School are often sent to other affiliated education centers in other regions to teach students hoping to become missionaries.

IM recently has held admission orientation events at its facilities throughout the nation, with its employees believed to have had contact with students and parents in various regions.

City officials said the IEM School held such events on Dec. 29, but the society reportedly hasn't conducted a single national event that would have brought together its faculty from across the country.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun ordered health authorities to deal swiftly with the outbreak.

"We're concerned that the outbreak could escalate into the second Shincheonji or BTJ crisis," Chung said during an interagency meeting on the COVID-19 response held at the government complex in Seoul.

Chung stressed the importance of a "speedy response" to such mass outbreaks. "We spent too much time in dealing with the Shoncheonji and BTJ outbreaks, and we cannot let such a situation repeat," he said.

He also ordered authorities to fully mobilize all capacities to prevent additional transmission cases and also asked the culture and education ministries and local governments to carry out antivirus measures as well. (Yonhap)