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South Korean worker linked to US military in Daegu tests positive for coronavirus, lies to get on base

Pvt. Hector Mercado, 23, of the 25th Transportation Battalion, checks temperatures before allowing people to enter Camp Walker in the coronavirus-hit city of Daegu, South Korea, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.

KIM GAMEL/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 9, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea — A South Korean construction worker who tested positive for the new coronavirus lied about his health to gain access to the U.S. military base where he worked in Daegu, the garrison commander said Monday.

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The man, who was a contracted construction worker on Camp Walker, was the eighth confirmed case linked to U.S. Forces Korea, the command said in a press release.

He “is currently in isolation at his off-base residence” as directed by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it said.

An investigation showed that the man became sick a week ago but continued coming onto the base, evading strict health checks including a questionnaire and temperature checks at access gates, the garrison commander said.

“He was not answering the questions truthfully, and he had even been tested for COVID and still came on post that day,” Col. Edward Ballanco said in a Facebook live update for the community. “It’s reprehensible and he will never be coming on post again.”

The details underscore the challenges facing the U.S. military as it struggles to keep the virus off bases across the divided peninsula.

A South Korean woman who tested positive on Friday also had gone to work at her office on Camp Humphreys the day before, officials there said, acknowledging that a mandatory temperature check had not detected a fever.

USFK, which commands some 28,500 service members, has tightened restrictions further in response to the latest cases.

Mandatory ID checks have been reimposed at the entrances to post exchanges, commissaries and other facilities to ensure only authorized purchasers can enter.

Army Garrison Daegu already faced the strictest regime as it sits at the epicenter of the outbreak. Restaurants are open for takeout only.

Ballanco said gate checks will be intensified and commercial facilities on base will receive a daily disinfectant cleaning.

The latest patient only made one visit outside of his construction site — to discuss an inspection code issue at the fire department, Ballanco said, citing the trace investigation.

The firefighter the patient spoke to, along with the patient’s colleagues at the construction site, have been self-isolated at home, he said.

Most of the confirmed USFK cases, including an American soldier and his wife, were in the southeastern city of Daegu or surrounding areas that are at the center of the outbreak. South Korea has confirmed more than 7,400 infections nationwide, with 51 deaths.

The other USFK personnel infected included the widow of a retired soldier, the dependent of an active-duty service member, the dependent of a Defense Department civilian employee and another South Korean employee.

USFK said the risk level for military personnel remains “high” and it is “implementing all appropriate control measures to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as a prudent measure to protect the force.”

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

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