A closer look at South Korea’s COVID-19 response and how it may have helped pave the way for US recovery

Medical staff administer COVID-19 tests for foreign passengers at a virus testing booth outside Incheon international airport, west of Seoul, South Korea on April 1, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jung Yeon-je

By Inyeong Kim
BU News Service

BOSTON — As the United States continues to turn heads with its attempt to reopen the American economy, it could look toward countries that have managed to do so less controversially. South Korea, which once struggled to respond to the spread of COVID-19 but has since successfully contained it, relaxed social distancing practices by May 6, relying on methods such as contact tracing, widespread testing and other speedy actions to help protect its citizens. 

By Feb. 29, while the U.S. had confirmed only 8 cases, at least 909 South Korean citizens had already been tested positive. 

Daegu, a city with roughly 11,000 residents and more than 2,000 positive cases in late February, occupied 62% of the country’s confirmed cases. Its leaders were initially blamed by citizens for failure to stop the virus, but since April, the city has had less than five daily confirmed cases.  

Just a week after the country took its hardest hit – and shortly after the government had raised the national disaster level to “serious,” – the number of confirmed cases in South Korea decreased drastically.

Heekyung Kim, 25, a resident of Seoul among those who had planned to get tested per the government’s encouragement to test, talked about South Korea’s response to the virus. 

“In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, the government did not do well in its initial response,” Kim said. “A few weeks later, they’ve took it seriously and changed many policies.”

One step the South Korean government quickly took was to require citizens to wear masks as early as February. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. initially asked people not to wear masks out of concern for shortage, but later recommended wearing masks.

Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began contract tracing efforts in February and shared the information with transparency about COVID-19, including the number of people tested and infected. Contact tracing involves tracking an infected patient’s most recent movements and sharing their paths publically, allowing citizens to minimize the likelihood of exposing themselves to high-risk locations. 

South Koreans who had been working from home since the end of February went back to the workplace after only a few weeks, though some schools and universities remain shut down. Since April 9, the daily number of reported confirmed cases has been fewer than 40.  

More countries have started considering contact tracing because of its benefits. Countries like Singapore and China are among those who adopted the practice earlier on in March, while countries like Iceland, Austria and Germany have paved the way in Europe. In the U.S., states such as Massachusetts and California are adopting the practice as well. 

But COVID-19 is not the first outbreak to invoke contact tracing in South Korea. The country also retraced patients’ paths using GPS and credit card records during the MERS outbreak in 2015. If their neighbors tested positive, citizens would receive text message alerts with details of their current whereabouts. 

“People want to know the paths of infected patients so we can protect ourselves from virus,” Kim said. “At first, people thought sharing their location is a violation of their privacy but eventually they accepted giving specific details like name of the apartment and paths.”

Other factors that contributed to South Korea’s containment strategy included the ability to test citizens widely, unlike the U.S which reportedly experienced a shortage of test kits.

Joan Stewart, a retired nurse in Holyoke, shared her frustration regarding the lack of test kits. 

“I would say probably our biggest issue was lack of testing initially, and the fact that we still don’t have a reliable test for antibodies [and] it’s very frustrating,” Stewart said. “We’re also a very big country so I think it’s difficult to manage.”

To date, South Korea has conducted more than 700,000 tests across 600 testing centers. There are different types of clinics available for diagnosing varying COVID-19 symptoms.

Drive-through clinics – a concept which first began in South Korea – make it possible to test people in only 10 minutes while allowing patients to remain in their cars. The availability of phone-booth-style walk-in centers also makes it possible for healthcare workers to examine patients quickly and with minimal contact.

“Selected clinics are so easy to diagnose COVID-19 and people who have symptoms like fever can go but if you don’t have any symptoms, then you may go to ‘Public Relief Hospital,’” Kim said. Public Relief Hospitals help administer treatment to respiratory patients and non-respiratory patients separately in an effort to maximize testing efficiency.  

The availability of additional testing clinics is meant to help reduces the burdens of hospitals and frontline workers. 

In the U.S., CVS Health Corp. announced on May 14 that it would begin hosting drive-through test centers in five states to help increase nationwide testing and reduce the burden of hospitals starting May 17. In Massachusetts, drive-through efforts began in March at a CVS parking lot in Shrewsbury. 

“Access to testing is critical in understanding and slowing the spread of COVID-19,” Mayor Lungo-Koehn, of Medford, said in a statement. 

Though the U.S. has been slower to respond when compared to South Korea, recent data suggests that the country’s efforts have been helping to flatten the curve, particularly since individual states began implementing their own stay-at-home orders.  

“I think when we did do the closures, finally, that was helpful,” Stewart said. “You know, the cases are going down. So, it is working.”

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