Mass testing: how South Korea contains coronavirus without lockdown

By Andres Sanchez Braun

Seoul, Apr 3 (efe-epa).- South Korea exceeded 10,000 coronavirus infections on Friday as the country continued to contain the outbreak and slow infections in a model that could become a global archetype.

There were 86 new cases reported in the past day, bringing total infections in the nation to just over 10,000 of which almost 3,900 were active, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

More than 6,000 people have recovered from the disease, around 60 per cent of all those who have fallen ill, which gives an idea of ??how South Korea, which was the second country to be badly affected by the virus, has managed to flatten the curve of infections.

The Asian nation, which has not limited citizen movements or closed its borders, has not reported more than 200 fresh infections per day since 12 March and has averaged about 100 new daily cases for the past 20 days.

Korea’s success appears to be thanks to its approach in combining widespread testing of the population, exhaustive monitoring to track infections and general hospitalisation, including mild cases.

Authorities were harshly criticised for their inability to contain an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that hit the country in 2015, leaving 38 people dead.

Any failures have been noted and a system was approved that allows diagnostic solutions companies to receive fast-track authorisations from the government to manufacture and export test kits in the event of a health emergency.

Companies began manufacturing diagnostic tests a week after the first case was detected in South Korea on 20 January.

There are now several doing so with a combined capacity that has put thousands of kits into circulation every day.

Testing has been one of the pillars of the country’s response with an average of 10,000 daily screenings carried out since the first major outbreak was detected there in late February.

It has become the basis for mapping and limiting the contagion, by screening and quarantining any at-risk groups whenever an outbreak is detected and cutting off potential new routes of infection.

This has been combined with a system to track the last steps of every confirmed patient to determine who they have been in contact with and which places they visited to test and isolate those who may have been infected.

This system uses GPS data from infected people’s phones, credit cards and CCTV which, despite the success of the initiative, has been criticised as an invasion of privacy and abuse of data.

South Korea has also reorganised its health service to create special spaces, such as former student accommodation, for patients with mild symptoms which has allowed for robust clinical follow-up and reduced the impact on resources and staff.

This has meant infections could be identified in the very early stages, with mild cases accounting for around 80 per cent of patients in the country.

The resulting hospital availability has led to a 1.7 per cent fatality rate in the country, where 174 people have died.

Authorities have imposed some social distancing measures, such as school classes being held completely online, as there is still a risk the contagion could increase especially in Seoul which is home to around 26 million people.

The capital and its surrounding area reported the highest number of infections on Thursday with 42, almost half of all new cases in the country.

This has largely been due to outbreaks in hospitals and churches, which have become major sources of infection, and citizens returning from overseas.

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