What The USA Can Learn From South Korea's Success Living Through The Pandemic
South Korea has averaged about 77 new daily cases since early April and recently suppressed a spike in infections. (Comparing that to the US that would be the equivalent of about 480 cases a day in the U.S.) Recently the real number was over 40,000.
South Korea’s economy is expected to decline by just 0.8% this year, the best among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s forecasts for member nations.
South Korea was about twice as effective as the U.S. and U.K. at preventing infected individuals from spreading the disease to others and was able to get their numbers down early. The key to South Korea’s success came from blending technology and testing like no other country. They would blast text alerts to citizens if infections occurred in their area.
The nation fast-tracked approval of domestic testing kits as soon as cases began hitting. When the supply of face masks ran short early on in the crisis, the government seized production and rectified the issue. Nearly everyone in the country wears masks. Treatment is free. Every confirmed patient, even those with no or mild symptoms, gets isolated at hospitals or converted dormitories run by the government.
Those concerned with privacy matters would resist their methods and local religious and civic groups have criticized South Korea’s methods as civil-rights violations and filed lawsuits. Health officials have unfettered access to individuals’ private mobile data, and early on used government websites to share the whereabouts of confirmed patients, plucked from smartphone GPS history. The government now offers anonymous testing and leaves out identifying information and specific names of places visited in contact-tracing disclosures.
As a result of strictly adhering to the government mandates it meant South Korea never had to lockdown, limiting the blow to their economy.
“No country has adapted to living with, and containing, the virus like South Korea,” said Dale Fisher , chairman of the World Health Organization’s global outbreak alert and response network. “You don’t need or want to eradicate the virus. But you modify your behavior and get on with life.”
“We were on the front lines,” said Kwon Jun-wook, deputy director of South Korea’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency. “In the past, we had treated the regulations from the World Health Organization and the U.S. as the Bible. But I had to apologize to our citizens because it was time for us to create our own regulations based on our own evidence.”
South Korea’s approach was put to another test in August, when infections rose again, centered around cases again linked to a large church.
Daily cases have since fallen to about 100, a manageable level for the country’s health system, officials say.
In total, South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has reported 23,455 cases and 395 deaths.
Below is their story....
One reason South Korea was prepared was because it learned tragically from 2015 when an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome occured.
“The only way to make the government prepared is to actually have an outbreak,” said Oh Myoung-don, head of South Korea’s central clinical committee for emerging disease control.
After MERS, the government started twice-a-year training sessions simulating a rapid spread of viral diseases like Ebola or influenza. In a script almost taken from a movie on Dec. 17, 2019, inside a glistening new facility resembling a NASA space-launch command center, dozens of government officials and outside medical experts gathered together.
“Oddly enough, last December’s ‘war game’ was a novel coronavirus,” said Mr. Kwon of the KDCA. The simulation featured a South Korean family, traveling back from China, suffering from an unknown pneumonia.
Three weeks later, on Jan. 27, the South Korean health officials convened experts and test-kit companies at a conference room inside Seoul Station.
“We promise a fast approval,” said one South Korean health official at the time, saying the government would buy unused supply if the outbreak never reached a significant size.
Then nothing happened. By the middle of February, the country had reported no new infections for six straight days. Things seemed so stable that South Korean President Moon Jae-then turned his focus to the economy, summoning the country’s top business leaders for a meeting where none of the attendees wore a face mask. The coronavirus, Mr. Moon said, “will be terminated before too long.”
“We thought we were managing the situation well,” said Ki Moran, a professor at the National Cancer Center who is advising the South Korean government on its Covid-19 response. “But everything changed with Patient 31.”
The churchgoing patient No. 31. She had recently been to a buffet restaurant and two cramped Sunday services attended by more than 1,000 others each time. Cases suddenly doubled in a day, to over 100. Experts predicted it would soon surge to levels seen nowhere else but China. That triggered a Feb. 20 late-night message in a group chat with eight South Korean infectious-disease experts: “We need to quickly devise a way to conduct mass testing,” one doctor wrote.
Kim Jin-yong , who had treated the country’s first coronavirus patient weeks before, believed he had an answer: drive-through clinics.
Two days later, cars rumbled through the country’s first drive-through clinic. Testing capacity multiplied 100 times, giving South Korea a critical early edge.
South Korea, at the urging of nearly a dozen medical societies, raised its infectious disease alert system to its highest level on Feb. 23.
As South Korea’s coronavirus problems mounted, Mr. Moon intentionally kept his profile low. “His stance is that it’s more objective for an expert to hold the briefings, and that is the way to gain the trust of the people,” said Noh Young-min, Mr. Moon’s chief of staff, who led the presidential Blue House’s coronavirus team.
In just 11 days, South Korea’s case count had gone from 31 to 3,150. Thousands were waiting to be hospitalized. A handful died while waiting.
South Korea’s infectious-disease experts had a proposal. Confirmed patients should be divided into four categories, based on the risk profile and severity of symptoms, with only the most serious cases hospitalized. Those with mild or no symptoms should be isolated at makeshift treatment facilities.
Dr. Peck set up a meeting with senior officials from the Samsung conglomerate, asking that an empty facility near Daegu be lent to the South Korean government. By first having a company volunteer a venue, Dr. Peck recalled thinking, it would pressure South Korea’s health ministry to act.
Her message to the Samsung officials was direct. “ LG will come forward eventually,” Dr. Peck said. “Don’t you want to be the first?”
Samsung eventually agreed, as did the South Korean government, which the next day approved the “community treatment center” plan and amended the guidelines. Eventually, LG, Hyundai and other South Korean firms volunteered corporate dormitories for the Covid-19 response.
About 80% of South Korea’s coronavirus patients have been hospitalized in the community treatment centers. Those who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms are still sent there.
Throughout March, South Korea’s infections started trending downward. April ended with fewer cases for the month than its one-day peak. By early May, South Korea began exploring ways to relax social-distancing measures that had banned protests, religious gatherings and closed schools in favor of online classes.
Throughout most of the summer, cases only exceeded 100 daily cases once.
That changed in August when an outbreak hit all 15 of the country’s major cities and provinces. They dealth with this outbreak in similar fashion and on Tuesday, South Korea reported its lowest one-day infections in over a month, with just 61 cases.