Officials are scrambling on the eve of the biggest planned event in South Korea in years — not because of anything related to North Korea and national security, but in an attempt to arrest the spread of norovirus at the Pyeongchang Games. Local media are fretting over a "virus panic." South Koreans, always quick to air their views online, have poured scorn on the government's response and preparations. Are the games hygienic? What will people think about South Korea? Could this spread to the athletes? Norovirus fears may turn out to be much ado about nothing. But with a national reputation on the line, officials are scrambling to contain its spread.
No one here wants these games associated more with disease than athletics in the manner that Zika, a mosquito-borne disease that causes rare birth defects in a small proportion of cases, loomed over the Rio Olympics in 2016. Norovirus is a common, infectious bug that causes unpleasant symptoms including diarrhea and vomiting but doesn't require medical treatment; most people recover on their own after a few days. Large outbreaks of the disease have previously been reported in restaurants, cruise ships, nursing homes, schools and building complexes that share a common water source.
According to Olympics organizers, the norovirus spread began when private security workers staying in the Jinbu area of Pyeongchang started complaining of headaches, stomach pain and diarrhea. About 1,200 people were kept in their rooms during tests for the contagious virus. Local and national health officials say they have investigated 1,023 people. Games organizers said that within three days 32 workers were being treated for norovirus and are in quarantine, including three foreigners. Because the sick workers handled security, 900 military personnel have been brought in to work at 20 venues until the sick and sequestered can return to work. Officials are conducting an epidemiological survey to track the disease's spread. A preliminary five-day survey of water for cooking and drinking has come up negative for norovirus. Health officials say they are also inspecting restaurants and all food facilities linked to the Olympics.
Notices have been posted around the Olympics urging regular, 30-second hand-washing sessions and the thorough boiling of water and washing of fruits and vegetables, among other precautions.