Chris Bolinger on Why South Korea’s Coronavirus Strategy May Be Worth Emulating

South Korean soldiers in protective gear sanitize a shopping street in Seoul, South Korea, March 4, 2020. REUTERS/Heo Ran

In mid-February, China was reporting nearly 2,000 new coronavirus cases a day, but three weeks later that number had dropped below 100, and it continues to fall. While some people distrust the numbers and other information coming out of China, others believe that we can learn from the measures that China took. Those measures reportedly included more than a month of city-wide lockdowns of the hardest-hit areas (such as the Wuhan area, where the first cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a coronavirus, were detected), extensive public monitoring of citizens and “extremely proactive surveillance” to detect cases, immediate isolation of patients, strict social distancing, and various methods of punishment and rewards to encourage adherence to such measures.

About the time that new coronavirus cases in China were beginning to decline, daily new cases in Italy began to ramp up: 335 new cases reported on March 2, 1,797 on March 9, and 3,233 on March 16. On March 10, Italy began a nationwide lockdown that is supposed to last until April 3. So far, however, the lockdown has done little to slow the new cases of coronavirus or deaths from COVID-19. On March 21, Italy reported that the previous day, the country saw 6,557 new cases and 793 deaths. Even though Italy’s total of diagnosed infections (53,578 on March 21) is far below China’s, Italy’s overall COVID-19 death toll (4,825 on March 21) is the highest in the world.

South Korea’s approach to coronavirus has been much different than those in China and Italy. No lockdowns. No roadblocks. No restriction on movement. The results, however, are quite close to those reported in China … and potentially even better.

TEST, TEST, TEST
What is the approach to coronavirus in South Korea? The first step is testing.

Every week, nearly 140,000 people are tested for coronavirus in South Korea. While that’s less than 0.3% of the population, the per-capita testing rate is the highest in the world. Results from dozens of drive-through testing centers go to 96 public and private laboratories, where test teams work around the clock to determine results – estimated at 98% accurate – and deliver them via a phone call (if positive) or a text (if negative).

When the virus hits in large numbers in a particular area, then a makeshift test center is created. For example, when there was a mass infection at a call center in Seoul, medics set up outside and quickly took swabs from hundreds of staff members in the building.

M*A*S*H-STYLE TRIAGE
What happens when your test is positive? That depends on how sick you are.

After studying early coronavirus infection cases, South Korean officials determined that about 80% of the cases are mild and, of the remaining 20%, only half need medical treatment at a fully-equipped hospital. So, on March 1, the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the decision to stop admitting every confirmed patient into a hospital.

Now, what health officials do is divide patients into four groups: asymptomatic, mild, severe, and critical. Only those in the latter two categories – such as those running fevers more than 100 degrees, having difficulty breathing, or aged 50 or above – go to the hospital. The others are instructed to recuperate at home or, if they need some level of care, at company dormitories – such as those owned by Samsung Life and LG – that have been reclassified as “residential treatment facilities.”

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Source: Christian Headlines