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Correctional staff to be tested for virus weekly, more facilities to undergo mass testing

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An unnamed inmate at Dongbu Detention Center in southern Seoul shows a paper blaiming the country's justice ministry, Wednesday afternoon. Yonhap
An unnamed inmate at Dongbu Detention Center in southern Seoul shows a paper blaiming the country's justice ministry, Wednesday afternoon. Yonhap

The government said Wednesday that it will test correctional facility employees nationwide on a weekly basis to slow or eliminate the spread of COVID-19.

According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), all staff working at the facilities will undergo the quick antigen tests that produce results in 30 minutes; although these are less accurate than polymerase chain reaction (PCR) laboratory tests.

As part of additional efforts to combat the virus, every inmate will be given a KF94 mask on a daily basis.

In recent months, the country's prisons have emerged as one of the biggest infection clusters for COVID-19 .

According to the Ministry of Justice, 1,203 former and current inmates and correctional employees have been infected with the virus as of 5 p.m. Wednesday, since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed at the Dongbu Detention Center in southeastern Seoul, Nov. 27.

Of the tally, the Dongbu center has been responsible for the vast majority, with about 1,160 cases. The center reported 67 more cases Wednesday, following its sixth mass testing of 429 staff members and 338 inmates the previous day.

Of the total, 1,059 have been put in isolation at several correctional facilities across the country, including 673 patients at the Dongbu center and 341 at Cheongsong Prison in North Gyeongsang Province.

By Tuesday, all the inmates and employees at 11 correctional facilities nationwide had been tested for the virus ― the results were negative.

On Dec. 31, the ministry imposed the most stringent social distancing guidelines on the nation's prison system, following an alarming surge in coronavirus cases tied to the Dongbu center.

The measures included banning visits, canceling all work and classes, and having staff work on a reduced schedule. The restrictions will remain in force until next Wednesday.

The main opposition People Power Party (PPP), meanwhile, filed a complaint with the prosecution against Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae for allegedly neglecting her duty to properly handle the prison coronavirus outbreak.

"Due to Minister Choo's negligence, we've seen a large number of patients and a death. (She) paid a visit to the Donbu facility only after the number of patients reached over 700, 32 days after the first reported case," PPP members of the National Assembly Judiciary Committee said in a press conference.

PPP floor leader Rep. Joo Ho-young also visited the Dongbu detention center earlier in the day to inspect the on-site disease control measures.

"Over 1,000 infected patients came from a top-of-the-line security facility controlled by the nation," Joo said, adding that he will hold Choo and justice ministry officials responsible for mismanaging the prison outbreak.

Four inmates at the detention center infected with the new coronavirus also filed a lawsuit demanding the government pay 10 million won ($9,210) per person in compensation over the outbreak.

The jail authorities neither provided face masks nor separated infected inmates from others, while neglecting the problem of overcrowding, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said. (Yonhap)


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