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Asia authorities track patient whereabouts to arrest spread

South Korea, Singapore and Philippines identify thousands of cases of contact

Shoppers wear masks at a market in Hong Kong. The city is disclosing where coronavirus patients live and what public transport they have taken.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE/SEOUL -- Authorities across Asia are taking bolder action to contain the new coronavirus, in some cases going as far as to make patients' movements public to warn anyone who may have come in contact with infected people.

South Korea has focused on tracking and disclosing where patients went after they developed symptoms, using credit card histories and mobile phone data. People who came within 2 meters of patients are urged to stay home, with the government shouldering any lost wages.

Seoul prioritizes curbing the outbreak over protecting privacy because of its experience in 2015 with Middle East respiratory syndrome, which killed more than 30 people in South Korea. The country later updated legislation on preventing infection outbreaks, letting the government publicly disclose patient movements.

Similar measures are being taken elsewhere in Asia as more coronavirus cases show no clear infection route.

Hong Kong is disclosing the buildings where confirmed coronavirus patients live and what public transport they have used, as well as buildings that have individuals quarantined at home. More than 40 of the 61 cases in the territory are believed to have been contracted within Hong Kong.

Singapore, which had 81 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, tracked down attendees at a conferences and other events thought responsible for spreading the new virus. The Ministry of Health said 2,538 people who had close contacted with coronavirus patients have been quarantined.

Health authorities in the Philippines, which saw the first death from the coronavirus outside China on Feb. 1, are working closely with police and local governments. They have identified over 1,200 people who had close contact with three confirmed patients, and screened more than 470 showing symptoms associated with the virus. Most have tested negative so far.

Governments also are trying to limit the movement of people. Hong Kong has closed elementary and middle schools as well as public facilities like libraries. Public-sector employees are working from home.

Taiwan extended school closures to Feb. 25, and Singapore asks those with respiratory symptoms to stay home for five days with a doctor's certificate.

Yet governments still lack a full picture of how the outbreak has spread. Seven patients in Singapore have no known links to other cases. Hong Kong has begun to see similar patients, and some health workers there want the city to seal itself off from mainland China, where the outbreak started.

Vietnam took an even bigger step to avert an epidemic. The country quarantined the community of Son Loi in Vinh Phuc Province near Hanoi, barring its more than 10,000 residents from leaving for 20 days starting Feb. 13. There have been 11 confirmed cases in Vinh Phuc, largely centered around Son Loi.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is cooperating with China on virus response. The two sides will hold an emergency meeting of foreign ministers on Thursday in Laos, where they are expected to agree on sharing outbreak information. They also will work together to train health care providers.

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