North Korea reports 15 more suspected COVID-19 deaths

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea has confirmed 15 additional deaths and hundreds of thousands of additional patients with fevers as it mobilizes more than a million health and other workers to try to contain the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak suppress, state media reported Sunday.

After more than two years of insisting on a widely-controversial claim that it was coronavirus-free, North Korea announced on Thursday that it had found its first COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic.

It has said a fever has spread “explosively” across the country since late April, but has not disclosed exactly how many COVID-19 cases it has found. Some experts say North Korea lacks the diagnostic kits needed to test a large number of suspected COVID-19 patients.

The additional deaths reported on Sunday brought the number of reported fever-related deaths in the country to 42. Korea’s official central news agency also reported that an additional 296,180 people had been counted with a fever, bringing the reported total to 820,620.

The outbreak has raised concerns about a humanitarian crisis in North Korea as most of the country’s 26 million people are believed to have not been vaccinated against the coronavirus and the public health system has been in shambles for decades. Some experts say North Korea could suffer massive fatalities if it doesn’t immediately receive outside shipments of vaccines, drugs and other medical supplies.

“Without COVID-19 test kits, North Korea resorts to body temperature checks to guess infections. But with such a very inferior and imprecise research method, it is impossible to find asymptomatic virus carriers and control viral peaks,” said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute in South Korea.

“As the (suspected) COVID-19 infections in North Korea explode, the death toll is expected to continue to rise,” Cheong added.

Since Thursday, North Korea has imposed a nationwide lockdown to fight the virus. That could put further pressure on the country’s fragile economy, which has suffered in recent years from sharply reduced foreign trade due to pandemic-related border closures, the sanctioning of UN economic sanctions over its nuclear program and its own mismanagement. , say observers.

At a meeting on the outbreak on Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak as a historic “great upheaval” and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as soon as possible.

KCNA said Sunday that more than 1.3 million people have been involved in works to examine and treat sick people and raise public awareness about hygiene. It said anyone with a fever and others with abnormal symptoms were quarantined and treated. KCNA said the increased pandemic response includes the establishment of more quarantine facilities, the urgent transport of medical supplies to hospitals and increased disinfection efforts.

“All provinces, cities and counties of the country have been completely closed off since the morning of May 12 and work units, production units and residential units have been closed from each other and strict and intensive investigations are being carried out on all people,” KCNA said. †

Of those with symptoms, 496,030 have recovered, while as of Saturday, 324,4550 were still in treatment, KCNA reported, citing the country’s Emergency Center for Epidemic Prevention.

According to state media reports, Kim and other senior North Korean officials are donating their private reserve medicines to aid the country’s anti-pandemic struggle. At Saturday’s meeting, Kim expressed optimism that the country could bring the outbreak under control, saying that most of the transfers take place within communities that are isolated from each other and do not spread from region to region.

Despite the outbreak, Kim has ordered officials to proceed with planned economic, construction and other state projects, suggesting authorities should not force people to lock themselves in their homes. Hours after admitting its virus outbreak on Thursday, North Korea even fired ballistic missiles toward the sea in a continuation of its recent battery of weapons tests.

KCNA said Kim, accompanied by top officials, visited a funeral station on Saturday for senior official Yang Hyong Sop, who died a day earlier, to offer his condolences and meet with relatives. A separate KCNA report on Sunday said officials and workers in the Northeast were launching initiatives to prevent an expected spring drought from hurting crop yields and quality.

South Korea and China have offered to send vaccines, medical supplies and other aid shipments to North Korea, but Pyongyang has not publicly responded to the rapprochement. North Korea previously turned down millions of doses of vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, amid speculation it was concerned about potential vaccine side effects or international monitoring requirements associated with those injections.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the United States has supported international aid efforts but has no plans to share its vaccine stockpiles with the North. The North Korean virus outbreak could still be a major topic of discussion when President Joe Biden visits Seoul later this week for a summit with newly inaugurated South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

South Korea’s former spy chief Park Jie-won wrote on Facebook Friday that in May 2021, as the then director of the National Intelligence Service, he proposed that Washington send 60 million doses of vaccines to North Korea as humanitarian aid through COVAX. He said there were later talks in the UN and the Vatican about sending 60 million doses to North Korea, but such aid was never realized because no formal offer was made to North Korea.

Park said he hopes North Korea will accept Yoon’s aid offers soon, though he said he doubts the North would.

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