Korea Needs New Approach to Coronavirus Epidemic

      February 20, 2020 13:46

      Korea has reported nearly 50 new cases of coronavirus infection in the southeastern city of Daegu and nearby towns in just two days this week, bringing the total confirmed cases to 82 and prompting health authorities to scramble into emergency mode. Most of the newly infected people apparently came into contact with the 31st confirmed case, a Daegu resident who had not traveled abroad recently and did not cross paths with any of the previously confirmed cases. The crisis unfolding in Daegu suggest that other cities in Korea are not safe either. The mayor of Seoul recently told President Moon Jae-in that quarantine efforts in the capital are "progressing smoothly in contrast to the [way the previous government handled] the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome." But soon after the mayor voiced such confidence, another mysterious case was detected in Seoul.

      The Korea Medical Association says initial quarantine measures have "failed." After no new confirmed cases emerged over three days after Feb. 13, Moon said the outbreak here "appears to be receding" and even forecast an imminent end. But now thousands of students are arriving from China after their winter break. Under these circumstances other countries might soon consider banning Koreans from entering.

      A minor alert would be fine if an infectious disease's spread across borders is limited. But Korea now faces the threat of a nationwide epidemic. The government must think about raising the alert to "serious" and make concerted efforts to stem the spread of infections. So far quarantine efforts have focused on high-risk groups such as incoming visitors from China with symptoms. Now authorities must rush to identify infected people showing no symptoms and isolate them. They also need to inspect all pneumonia patients in the country as well as some 1,470 nursing homes.

      They need to prepare for a surge in infections by allocating more hospital beds, while privately owned hospitals must get ready to handle coronavirus patients to take up the overspill from state hospitals. The 31st patient apparently twice refused requests from doctors to be checked for coronavirus and went to her church and even a wedding at a large hotel. Under the current law, health officials can conduct on-site checks on suspected carriers who refuse to be tested. They must enforce that law. The law also requires restaurants, hotels, schools, landlords, hospitals and companies to notify suspected carriers with tell-tale symptoms to health authorities. This needs to be publicized more.

      COVID-19 is difficult for quarantine officials to curb due to its rapid spread in the early stage of infection. The public needs to become more wary and refrain from gathering anywhere at all for the time being.

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