The figure is expected to rise further, as test results of around 200 servicemen from the 300-man Cheonghae unit are expected to be available in the coming days.
“So far, we have received test results from 101 servicemen, and 68 have tested positive, including 33 negative,” said an official with the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
Currently, 15 people, including three infected sailors, are under treatment at local hospitals, and others with mild or no symptoms have been placed in isolation on their ship, the Munmu the Great, the official said.
The government decided to bring all members of the unit home and sent two KC-330 Cygnus multirole tankers to Africa on Sunday, launching an operation called “Mission Oasis”.
The plane left Gimhae International Airport in the southern city of Busan at 4 p.m., carrying around 200 Korean personnel, including 13 medical personnel, as well as 148 soldiers tasked with bringing the destroyer home, according to the ministry.
“We have implemented extensive antivirus measures and loaded enough medical and other supplies necessary to ensure their safe return as soon as possible,” said a ministry official. “When they arrive, they will undergo viral tests again and be sent to facilities for quarantine and treatment. “
The plane is expected to arrive home on Tuesday, if the related process goes smoothly, he added.
Their return will be about a month ahead of the initial schedule, which will mark the first anticipated return of the contingent since the unit’s first deployment in 2009. The troops are renewed every six months for an anti-piracy mission in the region. Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast and around the Strait of Hormuz.
A replacement contingent is on its way after leaving for Africa last month to resume the mission.
“Three of the patients require intensive care, but medical staff believe they can still be helicoptered by tankers,” the official said.
“We are also preparing for various options, including sending another plane equipped with state-of-the-art medical equipment. We are monitoring the situation closely,” he added.
Contact tracing is ongoing, but infections appear to have started after the ship was docked in a nearby port for days at the end of last month to load supplies.
The military has been criticized for its initial poor response to the outbreak and the lack of guidance on such a pandemic.
The sailor who developed the first symptoms had only received cold medicine. A dozen others who later showed similar symptoms were tested for the virus with rapid test kits, instead of more precise PCR tests.
Some also claimed that authorities had not actively sought ways to vaccinate members of the unit, overlooking the possibility of infections as they all tested negative in tests carried out before they left in February and they are supposed to stay on the ship without much contact with others.
None of the troops were vaccinated, as they left South Korea just before the country began its vaccination campaign.
“There could be difficulties in responding to possible emergencies if the troops presented with severe cases of side effects if they were vaccinated on the ship, and the destroyer does not have the necessary facilities to store the vaccines, “said a ministry official, explaining the reasons for not administering vaccines to the military.
“We are discussing and will continue to take measures to ensure their safe return home and their treatment,” said a ministry official.
So far, about 73 percent of the approximately 1,300 troops serving overseas have been fully immunized, including all members of the new batch of Cheonghae unit, according to the ministry. (Yonhap)