How South Korea tamed COVID-19

Medical members wearing protective gear take samples from a driver with suspected symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus, at a “drive-through” virus test facility in Goyang, north of Seoul, on February 29, 2020. – South Korea reported on February 29 its biggest surge in new coronavirus cases and concerns grew of a possible epidemic in the United States as the World Health Organization raised its risk alert to its highest level. (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

After one of the world’s largest initial outbreaks outside China, South Korea has managed to bring daily new cases into relative decline without imposing draconian nationwide lockdown measures.

Comparing Italy to South Korea shows how dramatic the differences can be.

On March 1, Italy had only 1,701 cases and 41 deaths, while South Korea had 3,736 cases and 21 deaths. Three weeks later, on March 22, Italy’s caseload had exploded to 59,138, with 5,476 deaths, while South Korea’s total caseload had merely doubled to 8,897, with 104 deaths. 

The key to South Korea’s success has been speed and an early push toward mass testing, rigorous contact tracing, and mandatory quarantine for anyone near a carrier of the virus.

 The country, with a population of 51 million, tests more than 20,000 people a day at more than 600 testing sites nationwide, while integrating apps that not only track individuals if they have tested positive, but also warn them if they might have been exposed to a known case.

From a peak of 909 cases in February 29, South Korea has seen a decline of its COVID-19 cases since March 11 to as low as 74-76 daily. 

South Korea flattened the curve for new cases by ramping up its testing capacity to the current 20,000 people a day at 633 sites,  including drive-thru centers and even phone booths.

Those tested can receive their results in less than 24 hours, and so far over 327,000 of South Korea’s 51-million population have been tested since January 21st.

“Acting fast was the most important decision South Korea made,” said Hwang Seung-Sik, a professor at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Health.

Dr. Michael Dao shows some of the Covid-19 rapid tests he acquired from South Korea at his office in Garden Grove, CA, on Wednesday, Mar 25, 2020.
The test uses a drop of blood and can return results in 10 minutes.
(Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

By early February, the first test had been approved. Active collaboration among central and regional government officials and medical staff took place before cases began piling up. Early testing meant early detection of infections where a relatively larger proportion of patients showed either no symptoms or very mild ones, according to Hwang.

South Korean leaders have amped up efficiency for overwhelmed hospitals by digitally monitoring lower-risk patients under quarantine, as well as keeping close tabs on visiting travelers who are required to enter their symptoms into an app.

Sites like Corona Map generate real-time updates about where current patients are located and inform proactive Koreans focused on protecting themselves. According to a survey conducted last month by Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Health, 78.5 percent of respondents agreed that they would sacrifice the protection of their privacy rights to help prevent a national epidemic.

Now, hand sanitizer bottles are placed in front of nearly every entrance and elevator for public use. And of the 1,000 people who took part in a study by Seoul National University, 97.6 percent responded that they at least sometimes wear a mask when they are outside, 63.6 percent of who said they always wear one.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80 percent of COVID-19 cases can be categorized as mass infections. A call center in southwestern Seoul was at the center of a local outbreak this month that generated more than 156 infections. About 90 cases were traced to a Zumba class.

South Korea has already started new testing on all arrivals from Europe, according to local news reports, preparing for a “second wave” of imported clusters. Even those who test negative are required to self-quarantine for 14 days. (with reports from & NBCNews)


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