1 of 5 | Workers clean the Myeongdond subway station to protect against coronavirus in Seoul on Wednesday. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo
SEOUL, March 9 (UPI) -- As South Korea's confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, the country's health officials said Monday the outbreak is stabilizing and expressed confidence that "we will overcome" the disease.
"[T]he situation is steadily coming under control," Kim Gang-lip, Vice Minister of Health and Welfare, said at a briefing by several health and government officials for international journalists in Seoul. "We are seeing success in our efforts to stem the spread of this infectious disease."
The pace of new infections has been slowing in recent days. Total cases in South Korea stand at 7,478, with 96 new patients confirmed over the first 16 hours of Monday, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. On Sunday, 248 new cases were detected, figures that are below daily spikes that reached as high as 900 in recent weeks.
Some 89 percent of cases remain concentrated in the southeastern city of Daegu and its neighboring North Gyeongsang province, with over 62 percent of total cases connected to a secretive religious sect, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
South Korea has seen 51 deaths, primarily among the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, and had released 166 fully recovered patients as of Monday. Its case fatality rate remains relatively low, at just 0.7 percent.
The concentration in one main cluster has helped health authorities contain the spread, Kim said, but he added that South Korea has fought the outbreak with a "new system for responding to infectious diseases," featuring innovative testing and tracking methods and cutting-edge technology.
Instead of employing widespread lockdowns of cities or regions like China, and more recently Italy, have done, South Korea is adopting a different model, Kim said, which he described as a "dynamic response system for open democratic societies."
The system stresses transparency while fighting the infection's spread with novel approaches such as drive-through testing stations, of which there are about 50 in the country, and GPS-based tracking for tracing the movements of confirmed cases.
South Korea has also been at the forefront of the global response in terms of screening and testing potential patients. While many countries, including the United States, have struggled to roll out wide-scale testing, South Korea has tested nearly 200,000 people so far, according to the KCDC.
The country is now capable of conducting up to 15,000 tests a day, Kim said, which are administered free of charge. The government is covering costs of testing and treatment and is reimbursing medical facilities for losses incurred by imposed quarantines.
The enormous testing capacity has allowed South Korean officials to identify patients early and minimize harmful effects, the vice minister said.
"Ironically, the large number of confirmed cases in Korea has enabled us to prove our excellent ability to fight the virus," Kim said. "This includes our superb diagnostic testing abilities and thorough epidemiological investigations."
The government has also widely promoted information campaigns on good hygiene and "social distancing," recommending working from home, avoiding large crowds and maintaining physical space from others as much as possible.
Kim said the results have been as effective as more draconian measures such as lockdowns, while allowing people more freedom.
"[T]he same preventative effects that would have been expected from a physical lockdown have been achieved," Kim said. "This way, openness is maintained as people can avoid the intrusions on their daily lives that would be imposed by mandatory lockdowns."
The government is "convinced that our model is working effectively," Kim said. "We are now confident that we will overcome COVID-19 while minimizing damage."
Some in South Korea have leveled criticism against the administration of President Moon Jae-in for not imposing more stringent entry bans, particularly for travelers from China. South Korea has only barred entry for those coming from Hubei province, where the COVID-19 outbreak began.
A online petition on the presidential Blue House website calling for Moon's impeachment over his handling of the coronavirus has received nearly 1.5 million signatures.
However, officials pushed back against the effectiveness of the bans at Monday's briefing.
Lee Tae-ho, a vice minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that South Korea's more open approach is backed by the global public health community.
"The consensus among public health professionals seems to be that travel bans are not effective in containing contagious illnesses," he said.
Entry bans "can even make things worse by fueling as sense of complacency" and "may divert resources from other interventions," Lee added.
As of Monday, 106 countries have imposed either entry bans or quarantine measures on travelers from South Korea. Relations with Japan, already strained over a trade row and issues of wartime compensation for forced labor, grew tenser when Japan announced last week it would quarantine all travelers from South Korea.
Seoul responded on Monday with its own restrictions, halting a 90-day visa-free entry program for Japanese citizens and imposing other entry procedures such as temperature checks and required health documentation at airports.
Based on South Korea's strong response in combating the coronavirus, Lee urged countries to remove the restrictions on the country's travelers.
"Restrictions on travelers from Korea should be commensurate with the facts, not based on a vague fear," he said. "The restrictive measures that have been imposed on people traveling from Korea require careful reconsideration and warrant lifting."
Lee added that he hoped the epidemic would not leave "lasting scars on the spirit of free trade and movement of people, which is the basis of our shared prosperity."
"We need to guard not only against the spread of the virus but also fear, discrimination and isolation, all of which may strain our core values of free and open democracy," he said.
However, not all experts at Monday's briefing were ready to declare victory over the coronavirus outbreak.
"It is too early on to determine if we've been successful yet," said Kim Dong-hyun, president of the Korea Society of Epidemiology.
He said the spread of the novel coronavirus by infected carriers without any symptoms still makes it a challenge to contain.
"We're still in a learning process," he said. "Three months is too early to assess the results. What we have learned up until now is that COVID-19 is a very smart virus, so it is difficult to manage or control."
Health officials have expressed caution that another spike in cases could occur if there are new clusters of infections, with locations such as nursing homes or long-term care facilities at especially high risk.
Kim Dong-hyun added that South Korea's efforts so far in dealing with such a large outbreak can provide useful lessons to other countries facing their own rapid spreads.
"If we can share our experiences today, it can help Italy, Iran or any other countries that are experiencing a surge of cases," he said.