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By Nicola Smith, Asia correspondent 28 April 2020 www.telegraph.co.uk
Scientists have tracked the aggressive pace at which the coronavirus can sweep through an open plan office based on data from a call centre outbreak in South Korea.
The research by the Korean Centres for Disease Control focusses on a cluster that emerged in early March in a 19-storey building in a bustling district of Seoul, South Korea’s capital. Commercial offices are located on the 1st to 11th floors with residential apartments from the 13th to 19th.
Of 1,143 people tested for Covid-19 in the building, 97 had confirmed cases, and of these, 94 were working in an 11th-floor call centre with 216 employees, indicating an “attack rate” of 43.5 percent,” researchers said in the study published in the CDC’s journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases.
“This outbreak shows alarmingly that [the virus] can be exceptionally contagious in crowded office settings such as a call centre,” researchers concluded.
“The magnitude of the outbreak illustrates how a high-density work environment can become a high-risk site for the spread of Covid-19 and potentially a source of further transmission.”
However, on a more positive note, despite considerable contact between workers on different floors in the elevators and the lobby, the spread of Covid-19 “was limited almost exclusively to the 11th floor, which indicates that the duration of interaction was likely the main facilitator,” they added.
Researchers also discovered that the number of asymptomatic patients – 4.1% – was lower than an earlier study in Beijing, which indicated a rate of 5%.
“Our data might represent the likely proportion of asymptomatic COVID-19 infections in the community setting,” it said.
The call centre cluster was contained through mass testing of the entire building, strict quarantines for positive and suspected cases and extensive contact-tracing.
A total of 16,628 text messages were sent to people who had stayed more than five minutes near the building during the outbreak. The message recipients were tracked using cell phone location data and urged to avoid contact with others and to take a Covid-19 test.
Experts say South Korea has managed to avoid lockdowns or business bans through its aggressive “trace, test, treat” plan.