A decision to reopen nightclubs in an entertainment district of Seoul led to an outbreak of at least 246 cases of coronavirus in South Korea in May, researchers found.
Officials decided to open clubs in the Itaewon district for the Golden Week holiday, which runs from April 30 to May 5, because the pandemic had started to plateau there.
But starting May 6, officials started noticing cases among people who had been to the clubs. The clubs were closed again and the Seoul Municipal Government began testing people, the research team reported in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Using cell phone location data, credit card records and nightclub visitor lists, the researchers in Seoul identified 5,517 people for screening. They monitored 1,257 of those people and an additional 57,375 people who had spent 30 minutes or more in the vicinity of the clubs were encouraged to be tested.
The government worried there could be problems testing. As the media reported that the venues at the epicenter of the outbreak were gay nightclubs, rumors began that the outbreak started among gay men. Gay South Korean men often experience prejudice and stigmatization, and can be unwilling to reveal their sexual identity, the researchers said.
Because of this, the Seoul Metropolitan Government consulted with sexual-minority groups to discuss ways to encourage testing. Their solution was anonymous testing, with the only information required from patients being their cell phone numbers.
By May 25, the team identified at least 246 confirmed nightclub-associated cases. They found 39% of the cases were in people who had visited the clubs themselves, and the rest were in contacts of those people. Cases were found in Seoul and further out into the community and country.
“Despite the low incidence in the postpeak period of the pandemic, superspreading related to visiting nightclubs in Seoul has the potential to spark a resurgence of cases in South Korea,” the researchers wrote.