SEOUL/BUSAN -- Fears of the coronavirus epidemic are rapidly spreading among citizens in Busan after it has been reported that at least 17 Russian sailors found to be infected with the virus after arriving in the southern port city on Sunday came into contact with over 200 Korean dock workers.
Some critics said Wednesday that contacts between infected Russians and Korean port workers could have been prevented if Busan's port authorities had conducted a thorough quarantine inspection for the cargo ship arriving from Russia, where confirmed COVID-19 cases have exceeded 590,000.
According to municipal and port officials, Russia's 3,933-ton Ice Stream cargo ship with 21 sailors on board docked at Busan's Gamcheon Port around 8 a.m. Sunday carrying frozen marine products after departing from Vladivostok on June 16.
Busan's port authorities conducted an electronic quarantine for the Ice Stream on the condition that its sailors will not disembark from the ship. Unlike on-board quarantine inspections, the electronic quarantine procedure allows officials to receive and review documents, such as health status reports, quarantine questionnaire responses and voyage logs, on computer screens.
The Russian ship received a quarantine certificate and entry permission after reporting all its crew members have no health problems and began the unloading work Sunday morning. The Russian sailors reportedly worked with hundreds of Korean cargo workers even without wearing a face mask. In the unloading process, at least 170 longshoremen workers are said to have been exposed to the Russian sailors. Coronavirus tests are planned for all those Koreans exposed to the Russians.
Busan's port officials belatedly rushed to the Ice Stream after being informed by a shipping agent Monday morning that the Russian vessel's captain was swapped shortly before leaving Vladivostok because he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Moreover, at least 10 sailors allegedly came into close contact with the infected captain, but that was not reported to the South Korean authorities.
The critics said unfaithful reports from the Russian side, as well as lax quarantine procedures by local authorities, have combined to heighten fears of a new coronavirus cluster in Busan. They noted that an on-board quarantine inspection should have been carried out on the Ice Stream, considering the number of Russia's COVID-19 patients is now approaching 600,000.
South Korea's government belatedly decided to add Russia to the list of countries subject to on-board quarantine inspections, effective immediately. Previously, vessels from only three countries -- China, Iran and Italy -- were subject to on-board quarantine inspections.
"All Russian vessels entering the port of Busan will have to go through on-board quarantine inspections (by Korean officials) from today," Kim Ganglip, general coordinator of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, said in a media briefing.
The Seoul government also ordered all shipping companies to report any sailors who disembarked from their ships within 14 days of entering South Korean ports. Ships caught failing to report sailors with symptoms will be fined and banned from entering South Korean ports, the government said, citing the current law permitting restraints against foreign vessels for reasons of national emergencies.
Kim said the government will also consider exercising its rights for indemnity from shipping companies responsible for the spread of the coronavirus if social expenses occur due to mass infections from foreign sailors.
On the scene, Busan's quarantine officials found three Ice Stream sailors showing fever symptoms and a total of 16 sailors later tested positive for the virus Monday afternoon.
Unloading work from the Russian ship was suspended at 11 a.m. Monday, but nearly 200 Korean dock workers had already come into contact with the infected Russian sailors for one day, they said.
Coincidentally, one of 21 sailors from another Russian cargo ship, owned by the same company as the Ice Stream and arriving at the Busan port three days earlier, tested positive. All the infected Russian patients have been transferred to the Busan Medical Center to receive free treatment offered by the Korean government.
Busan's port authorities are now investigating why the Russian shipping company withheld information on the coronavirus outbreak in Vladivostok and failed to abide by the non-disembarkation condition and report the three sailors with fever symptoms.
Busan's municipal authorities have been closely monitoring the situation at Gamcheon Port, fearing a possible community spread of the coronavirus from the infected Russians.
All told, 211 dock and cargo workers have so far been ordered to be tested for the virus, they said.
As of 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 39 of them took the test and they all showed negative results, the authorities said, noting tests are under way for the remaining 172 people.
Fortunately, six Korean ship repair workers who visited the two contaminated Russian vessels have tested negative for the virus, they noted.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun instructed officials to be on full alert over virus infection risks involving harbors and airports, calling for efforts to prevent similar cases.
The Russia vessel case came "despite South Korea's constant efforts to reinforce quarantine measures at airports and harbors," Chung said in a regular government COVID-19 response meeting.
"This should be an opportunity to review our activities to prevent the spread of the virus," he said, instructing officials to dial up quarantine and inspection efforts at those facilities.
On Wednesday, South Korea reported another 51 confirmed cases, raising the total caseload to 12,535. In Busan, the cumulative number of COVID-19 patients increased to 152. (Yonhap)