(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 4-12, 16, 19-20, 24-26; CHANGES first photo)
SEOUL, Jan. 26 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Sunday reported its third confirmed case of the Wuhan coronavirus amid mounting fears over the spread of the pneumonia-like illness throughout China and other parts of the world, with quarantine authorities scrambling to determine how best to respond to people who initially show no symptoms.
According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), a 54-year-old South Korean resident of Wuhan who arrived back home on Monday tested positive for the new strain of the virus that has killed 56 people so far.
"Upon arrival at the airport he showed no symptoms and was not aware he had been infected until he started suffering from fever, chills and muscle cramps on Wednesday. His condition seems to have improved for a few days before getting worse again, at which time he contacted health authorities and was placed in isolation on Saturday for tests and treatment," the KCDC said.
Authorities said that in the latest case, the man had engaged in normal activities after flying into Incheon International Airport late Monday from Wuhan via Qingdao. It said officials are checking where he visited and the people he may have been in contact with so as to inform them of health risks and ask them to report any signs of illness.
On a broader level, Seoul said that starting on Tuesday, all of China will be classified as a "coronavirus risk area" subject to tighter quarantine, with newer standards on screening to be applied.
Travelers coming in from China must fill out detailed health questionnaires upon arrival in the country. The KCDC said it will receive around 200 additional personnel from the police, the military and local government to man checkpoints and asked citizens to be understanding of inconveniences that tighter screening may cause.
"If a person from Wuhan and nearby areas show signs of fever and breathing issues he or she will be placed in quarantine, while those from other parts of China that seem to have pneumonia will be isolated as well," the KCDC said. It said that for other milder symptoms, people who have not been to Wuhan will be placed under active monitoring.
Previously, Seoul had kept people in quarantine only if they had been to Wuhan in the recent past and were feeling ill, with those with no or very mild symptoms not being restricted and only advised to stay at home.
The latest case follows Seoul confirming two incidents of the new coronavirus strain on Monday and Friday, respectively, with health workers checking on the conditions of those that have come in contact with such people. In the first incident, the KCDC discovered 45 people who came into contact with the 35-year-old Chinese woman, while in the second case, involving a 55-year-old South Korean man, a total of 75 people have been identified and have been monitored, with the 11 people tested for having cold-like symptoms all testing negative for the virus.
Health authorities said that of the two people who were earlier confirmed to have been infected, the Chinese woman is being treated for pneumonia, with the man in stable condition and being monitored around the clock. They are in designated isolation unit wards in Incheon and Seoul, respectively. The third patient is in a hospital in Goyang City.
KCDC said that overall it has checked a total of 47 people who have shown symptoms so far, with all testing negative for the illness. The tally of people screened was 32 on Saturday.
South Korea's foreign ministry, which raised the travel advisory level for Wuhan and the Hubei region to "red alert" the previous day, has recommended its citizens evacuate the region.
"Red alert" is the third highest in the country's four-tier travel warning system.
The South Korean government is also considering evacuating its citizens from Wuhan on a chartered plane. About 500 South Koreans are said to be staying in and around Wuhan.
According to South Korean residents in Wuhan, the South Korean Consulate General in the city recently polled them about chartering a plane out of Wuhan. More than 400 people said they would board the flight if one became available.
A ministry source said that talks are under way with Beijing and other related organization to evacuate people.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that the U.S. government will offer 1,000 American citizens in Wuhan a seat on a chartered 230-seat Boeing plane. The South Korean government has yet to reach an agreement with its Chinese counterpart over the use of its own chartered flight.
Reflecting the concerns raised by the coronavirus, airports across South Korea have set up checkpoints to screen passengers from China and other countries for signs of illness, with local authorities accelerating quarantine efforts to contain the virus as people visit relatives at home or travel abroad.
The Seoul city government convened an emergency meeting of senior officials to check its response procedures to handle outbreaks and what additional measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of its citizens. Gyeonggi Province said it has set up a situation room that can help to contain outbreaks and coordinate work to isolate and treat people who have tested positive for the virus. It said hospitals have been notified to prepare for contingencies that could include a spike in patients. South Chungcheong Province also said that it has canceled a group tour by some 3,000 Chinese nationals even though they were not from Wuhan.
"We contacted the travel agency that arranged the tour and reached an agreement to cancel the trip," a provincial official said. He said the move reflected local concerns about the illness.
Health workers stressed citizens should follow strict personal hygiene rules whether they are in the country or traveling abroad, especially since large numbers of Chinese tourists are visiting South Korea during the holiday period. The start of the Lunar New Year is celebrated by both Korean and Chinese people.
They said people feeling ill should immediately contact its emergency call center by dialing "1339."
It also asked people to wash their hands frequently, cover their mouths when coughing and, if they have respiratory problems, wear a mask.
On the issue of ferreting out people who are not feeling ill even though they have been infected with the virus, local doctors said that the government may have to broaden what it is checking for to detect those with the new coronavirus.
Kim Woo-joo, a professor of medicine at Korea University, said that there are people who do not seem to show signs of pneumonia at all.
"This requires authorities to expand their checklist and check for even minor telltale signs," he said.
Common symptoms of the coronavirus, thought to have originated in Wuhan, central China, include fever, sore throat and breathing difficulties, with more acute cases bringing chills and muscle pain. Health experts said that elderly people and those with underlying disorders should be more careful.
Local businesses, meanwhile, said that with the spread of the coronavirus, many have halted all trips by employees to Wuhan and the nearby area.
SK Global Chemical Co. and steelmaker POSCO said they have stopped all trips to the most-affected areas, while oil refiner SK Innovation Co. announced that only critical personnel will be permitted to visit.
China announced that besides the deaths, 1,975 people are confirmed infected amid concerns that the virus is spreading quickly and widely. It said that of those infected, 324 were in critical condition.
Outside China, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Macao, Hong Kong, France, Australia and the United States have reported confirmed cases of the new coronavirus strain, and there are media reports of a new case in Canada.