SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Sunday sent military aircraft to replace the entire 301-member crew of a navy destroyer on an anti-piracy mission off East Africa after nearly 70 of them tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said.
Two multi-role aerial tankers are bringing the new crew and will then take home 301 sailors aboard the 4,400-ton-class destroyer Munmu the Great, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Health Ministry officials said.
They said 68 sailors have so far tested positive and the results of tests for 200 crew are still pending.
Fifteen sailors have been hospitalized in an African country that authorities did not name, while the rest are on the destroyer. None of the crew has been vaccinated for COVID-19 as they left South Korea in early February, before the start of the vaccination campaign, a Joint Chiefs of Staff official said requesting anonymity citing department rules.
The cause of infections hasn’t been officially announced. But military authorities suspect the virus might have spread when the destroyer docked at a harbor in the region to load goods in late June.
The replacement crew of 150 navy personnel will arrive aboard the aerial tankers and move to the destroyer, which is anchored at sea, to sail it back to South Korea on a journey that takes about a month, the Joint Chiefs of Staff official said.
Health Ministry official Sohn Youngrae told reporters that the 301 crew of the destroyer will be sent to hospitals or quarantine facilities upon their return to South Korea early this week. He said the crew were all relatively in good condition.
South Korea has taken part in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2009. Military officials said the Munmu the Great was to be replaced with another destroyer next month following a six-month rotational deployment. The second destroyer is on its way to the area.
The outbreak on the destroyer comes as South Korea is grappling with a spike in infections at home that has forced authorities to place the populous capital region under the toughest distancing rules.
Starting Monday, authorities will enforce a four-person cap on private gatherings in areas outside the Seoul metropolitan region for two weeks, Sohn said. In the Seoul area, the same restrictions have been in place during the daytime since last Monday but gatherings of three or more people are banned after 6 p.m.
South Korea on Sunday confirmed another 1,454 new cases, taking the country’s total to 177,951 infections and 2,057 deaths since the pandemic began. It was the 12th consecutive day for South Korea to report more than 1,000 new cases.