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Lessons for the world: How South Korea is tackling coronavirus

Health workers in biohazard suits treat patients at a drive-through coronavirus testing center at Seoul Metropolitan Eunpyeong Hospital on March 4.  Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
Health workers in biohazard suits treat patients at a drive-through coronavirus testing center at Seoul Metropolitan Eunpyeong Hospital on March 4.  Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, March 13 (UPI) -- While South Korea has one of the highest numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world, its vigorous and effective response in handling the outbreak offers lessons for other countries facing their own rapidly rising numbers of patients.

As of Friday, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 7,979 coronavirus cases, with almost 90 percent of the total concentrated around the southeastern city of Daegu and neighboring North Gyeongsang province.

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However, the rate of new infections has been slowing significantly. Just 110 new cases were reported on Thursday, the lowest total in weeks, while the number of patients released from care jumped by 177 to a total of 510.

And with 67 deaths, South Korea's fatality rate is 0.7 percent, far lower than the 3.4 percent global rate cited by the World Health Organization.

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Although the threat of new cluster infections remains, such as a group transmission at a Seoul call center that raised alarms this week, health officials said this week that they are seeing success in their efforts to stem the spread of the disease.

At the heart of South Korea's response has been an aggressive, early and widespread testing regimen.

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"We are conducting more diagnostic testing faster than any other country in the world," Kim Gang-lip, Vice Minister of Health and Welfare, said at a briefing for foreign reporters on Wednesday.

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South Korea had conducted almost 250,000 tests as of Friday, the KCDC reported, and is capable of testing around 15,000 patients per day. By contrast, the United States has tested fewer than 14,000 people overall, a situation that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, called "a failing" during congressional testimony on Thursday.

South Korea has offered easy and affordable access to coronavirus tests, with innovative approaches that include around 50 drive-through testing locations, as well as mobile facilities and door-to-door visits.

Nearly 600 locations nationwide can collect samples, with 91 healthcare agencies and labs conducting the tests.

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The tests are free for people who have symptoms or contact with an infected patient and otherwise cost around $130. If an individual tests positive for the coronavirus infection, the government covers all costs for hospitalization and treatment and even provides compensation for living expenses while in self-quarantine.

The drive-through system is quick, with a multi-step process from consultation to collection of samples from the nostril and mouth taking about 10 minutes total.

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In addition to its efficiency, testing done in cars lowers risks by minimizing physical contact.

"It's much safer for staff and patients," said Kim Jong-hwan, an administrator at Seoul Metropolitan Eunpyeong Hospital, which has been operating a drive-through testing since last week. "The patients feel more reassured to come in and get tested, and results are available within six hours."

Kim said the South Korean response has been honed by previous experiences with other viral respiratory illnesses: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015.

During the MERS outbreak, South Korea faced a lack of testing kits and afterward put in place a system to streamline approvals. After the COVID-19 outbreak in China, a Korean biotech company was able to get emergency approval for a test kit in about a week.

"The government's response has been so well-organized," Kim said. "I'm proud of it."

Beyond testing, South Korea has also implemented a high-tech tracking and investigation response once a COVID-19 patient has been confirmed. Through credit card use, CCTV and GPS records on mobile phones, health authorities are able to put together detailed accounts of the patient's movements for a two-week period in order to identify other potential infections.

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The location information is shared on government websites with a level of detail that goes down to which seat a patient used at a movie theater. Information alerts are also widely sent out by text message to anyone residing in areas where there has been a confirmed patient.

Health authorities have aggressively promoted hygiene and social distancing through widespread public information campaigns, while mass disinfections are being conducted regularly in high-traffic locations such as subway and train stations. The country also acted quickly to cancel public events and close schools, where classes are postponed until at least March 23.

Instead of imposing heavy entry bans on foreign travelers, South Korea has only restricted entry for those from Hubei province in China, where the outbreak began. Health authorities have added additional screening procedures for people coming from high-incidence countries such as China, Italy and Iran.

Visitors from the affected regions must install a special app on their smartphones and check in every day with their health status. Travelers who fail to respond will be tracked down.

More than 400 travelers have reported symptoms, and 87 were tested but there have been no confirmed cases via the app, said Kwon Jun-wook, deputy head of the KCDC.

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"We are not blocking or implementing any travel bans universally, but nonetheless we are using such apps to effectively control this infection," Kwon told reporters on Wednesday.

Underlying South Korea's entire approach is a dedication to extreme transparency, with a pair of daily briefings by health officials and detailed statistical data available on the KCDC and other government websites. There is also a measure of social trust placed in citizens to self-quarantine and avoid other risky behaviors.

The approach hasn't won universal praise: There has been vocal criticism of the administration of President Moon Jae-in for not imposing a stricter travel ban on all entries from China, and privacy concerns have been raised about the tracking and sharing of patient information.

However, the South Korean model seems to have worked to curtail a rapid outbreak originally tied to a secretive religious sect, while avoiding the heavy-handed lockdown of an authoritarian regime such as China. On Thursday, the number of recovered patients exceeded the number of new cases for the first time since Jan. 20.

Kim called the lockdown approach modestly effective but "close-minded, coercive and inflexible."

"Korea, as a democratic country, values globalization and a pluralistic society," he said. "Thus, we believe we must transcend the limitations of the conventional approach to fighting infectious diseases."

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