How South Korea Flattened the Curve and the United States Continues to Fail
As global deaths from the virus surge officials and experts worldwide are examing South Korea for lessons. And those lessons, while hardly easy, appear relatively straightforward and affordable: swift action, widespread testing and contact tracing, and critical support from citizens.
The only thing preventing saving the citizens of the U.S. is Trump’s ego.
Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, has repeatedly raised South Korea as a model, writing on Twitter, “South Korea is showing Covid-19 can be beat with smart, aggressive public health.”
Lesson 1: Intervene Fast, Before It’s a Crisis
Just one week after the country’s first case was diagnosed in late January, government officials met with representatives from several medical companies. They urged the companies to begin immediately developing coronavirus test kits for mass production, promising emergency approval.
Within two weeks, though South Korea’s confirmed cases remained in the double digits, thousands of test kits were shipping daily. The country now produces 100,000 kits per day, and officials say they are in talks with 17 foreign governments about exporting them.
Lesson 2: Test Early, Often and Safely
South Korea has tested far more people for the coronavirus than any other country, enabling it to isolate and treat many people soon after they are infected.
The country has conducted over 300,000 tests, for a per-capita rate more than 40 times that of the United States.
“Testing is central because that leads to early detection, it minimizes further spread and it quickly treats those found with the virus,” Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister, told the BBC, calling the tests “the key behind our very low fatality rate as well.”
At 50 drive-through stations, patients are tested without leaving their cars. They are given a questionnaire, a remote temperature scan and a throat swab. The process takes about 10 minutes. Test results are usually back within hours.
At some walk-in centers, patients enter a chamber resembling a transparent phone booth. Health workers administer throat swabs using thick rubber gloves built into the chamber’s walls.
Relentless public messaging urges South Koreans to seek testing if they or someone they know develop symptoms. Visitors from abroad are required to download a smartphone app that guides them through self-checks for symptoms.
Offices, hotels and other large buildings often use thermal image cameras to identify people with fevers. Many restaurants check customers’ temperatures before accepting them.
Lesson 3: Contact Tracing, Isolation and Surveillance
When someone tests positive, health workers retrace the patient’s recent movements to find, test — and, if necessary, isolate — anyone the person may have had contact with, a process known as contact tracing.
This allows health workers to identify networks of possible transmission early, carving the virus out of society like a surgeon removing a cancer.
South Korea developed tools and practices for aggressive contact tracing during the MERS outbreak. Health officials would retrace patients’ movements using security camera footage, credit card records, even GPS data from their cars and cellphones.
“We did our epidemiological investigations like police detectives,” Dr. Ki said. “Later, we had laws revised to prioritize social security over individual privacy at times of infectious disease crises.”
As the coronavirus outbreak grew too big to track patients so intensively, officials relied more on mass messaging.
South Koreans’ cellphones vibrate with emergency alerts whenever new cases are discovered in their districts. Websites and smartphone apps detail hour-by-hour, sometimes minute-by-minute, timelines of infected people’s travel — which buses they took, when and where they got on and off, even whether they were wearing masks.
People who believe they may have crossed paths with a patient are urged to report to testing centers.
South Koreans have broadly accepted the loss of privacy as a necessary trade-off.
People ordered into self-quarantine must download another app, which alerts officials if a patient ventures out of isolation. Fines for violations can reach $2,500.
By identifying and treating infections early, and segregating mild cases to special centers, South Korea has kept hospitals clear for the most serious patients. Its case fatality rate is just over one percent, among the lowest in the world.
Lesson 4: Enlist The Public’s Help
There aren’t enough health workers or body-temperature scanners to track everybody, so everyday people must pitch in.
Leaders concluded that subduing the outbreak required keeping citizens fully informed and asking for their cooperation, said Mr. Kim, the vice health minister.
Television broadcasts, subway station announcements and smartphone alerts provide endless reminders to wear face masks, pointers on social distancing and the day’s transmission data.
The messaging instills a near-wartime sense of common purpose. Polls show majority approval for the government’s efforts, with confidence high, panic low and scant hoarding.
“This public trust has resulted in a very high level of civic awareness and voluntary cooperation that strengthens our collective effort,” Lee Tae-ho, the vice minister of foreign affairs, told reporters earlier this month.
Officials also credit the country’s nationalized health care system, which guarantees most care, and special rules covering coronavirus-related costs, as giving even people with no symptoms greater incentive to get tested.