SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea has confirmed 15 more deaths and hundreds of thousands more fever patients as it mobilizes more than a million health and other workers to try to suppress the first outbreak of COVID-19. 19 in the country, state media reported Sunday.
After upholding a widely disputed claim of being coronavirus-free for more than two years, North Korea announced on Thursday that it had found its first COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.
It has said the fever has spread across the country “explosively” since late April, but has not revealed 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 country’s reported fever-related deaths to 42. The official Korean Central News Agency also reported that another 296,180 people with a fever had been counted, bringing the reported total to 820,620.
The outbreak has raised concerns of a humanitarian crisis in North Korea because most of the country’s 26 million people are believed to be unvaccinated against the coronavirus and its public health system has been in shambles for decades. Some experts say North Korea could suffer heavy casualties if it doesn’t immediately receive foreign shipments of vaccines, drugs and other medical supplies.
“Without COVID-19 test kits, North Korea is resorting to body temperature checks to second-guess infections. But with such an inferior and inaccurate screening method, it’s impossible to find asymptomatic carriers of the virus and control viral surges.” said analyst Cheong Seong. -Chang at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
“As North Korea’s (suspected) COVID-19 infections increase explosively, its death toll is expected to continue to rise,” Cheong added.
Since Thursday, North Korea has imposed a nationwide lockdown to combat the virus. That could further strain the country’s fragile economy, which has suffered in recent years from sharply reduced foreign trade caused by pandemic-related border closures, punishing UN economic sanctions over its nuclear program and its own mismanagement, observers say.
During a meeting on the outbreak on Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described the outbreak as a “major upheaval” in history and called for unity between the government and the people to stabilize the outbreak as quickly as possible.
KCNA said on Sunday that more than 1.3 million people have participated in work to examine and treat sick people and raise public awareness of hygiene. He said that everyone with a fever and others with abnormal symptoms were being quarantined and treated. KCNA said the heightened response to the pandemic includes the establishment of more quarantine facilities, urgent transportation of medical supplies to hospitals, and increased disinfection efforts.
“All provinces, cities and counties in the country have been fully locked down and work units, production units and residential units have been closed with each other since the morning of May 12 and a strict and intensive examination of all people,” KCNA said. .
Of those with symptoms, 496,030 have recovered, while 324,4550 were still receiving treatment as of Saturday, the KCNA reported, citing the country’s emergency epidemic prevention center.
State media reports said Kim and other top North Korean officials are donating their privately held drugs to support the country’s fight against the pandemic. During the meeting on Saturday, Kim expressed optimism that the country could control the outbreak, saying that most transmissions occur within communities that are isolated from each other and do not spread from one region to another.
Despite the outbreak, Kim ordered officials to go ahead with planned economic, construction and other state projects, a suggestion that authorities are not requiring people to confine themselves to their homes. Hours after he admitted to its virus outbreak on Thursday, North Korea even fired ballistic missiles into the sea in a continuation of its recent run of weapons tests.
KCNA said Kim, accompanied by top deputies, visited a mourning station set up for senior official Yang Hyong Sop, who died a day earlier, on Saturday to express condolences and meet with bereaved relatives. A separate KCNA dispatch said on Sunday that officials and workers in the Northeast were launching initiatives to prevent an expected spring drought from damaging 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 offers. North Korea previously rejected millions of doses of vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program amid speculation that it was concerned about potential vaccine side effects or the international monitoring requirements attached to those injections.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the United States supports international relief efforts but does not plan to share its vaccine supplies with the North. The North Korea virus outbreak could remain 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.
Former South Korean espionage chief Park Jie-won wrote on Facebook on Friday that he had proposed in May 2021 as the then director of the National Intelligence Service that Washington send 60 million doses of vaccines to North Korea as humanitarian aid through COVAX. He said there were then talks at the UN and the Vatican about sending 60 million doses to North Korea as well, but such help never materialized as no formal offers were made to North Korea.
Park said he hopes North Korea will quickly accept offers of help from Yoon, although he said he doubts North Korea will.