After early success, South Korean sleepwalkers into a virus crisis

South Korea seemed to win the battle against the coronavirus: Rapidly increasing its testing, contact tracking and quarantine efforts paid off as it withstood an early outbreak without the economic pain of blockade. But a deadly revival has reached new heights over Christmas week, prompting a soul search for how the nation has slept in a crisis.

The 1,241 infections on Christmas Day were the largest daily increase. A further 1,132 cases were reported on Saturday, bringing South Korea’s revenue to 55,902.

More than 15,000 have been added in the last 15 days alone. Another 221 deaths during the same period, the deadliest strain, killed 793.

As numbers continue to rise, the shock to people’s livelihoods is deepening and public confidence in the government is eroding. Officials could decide to increase social distancing measures to peak levels on Sunday, after resistance for weeks.

Tighter restrictions could be unavoidable, as deliveries have outpaced efforts to expand hospital capacity.

In the larger Seoul area, more facilities have been designated for treatment of COVID-19 and dozens of general hospitals have been ordered to allocate more ICUs for viral patients. Hundreds of soldiers were deployed to help with contract tracking.

At least four patients have died at their homes or long-term care facilities awaiting admission this month, said Kwak Jin, an official with the Korea Agency for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency said 299 out of 16,577 active patients were in serious or critical condition.

“Our hospital system will not collapse, but the crowd in COVID-19 patients has significantly hampered our response,” said Choi Won Suk, a professor of infectious disease at Korea University Ansan Hospital, west of Seoul.

Choi said the government should do more to prepare hospitals for a winter hike.
“We have patients with all sorts of serious illnesses at our ICUs and they can’t share space with COVID-19 patients, so it’s hard,” Choi said. “It’s the same medical staff that has been fighting the virus all these months. It’s an accumulation of fatigue.”

Critics say President Moon Jae-in’s government has become complacent after quickly containing the explosion this spring centered in the southeastern city of Daegu.

The past few weeks have highlighted risks of putting economic concerns ahead of public health when vaccines are at least months away. Officials eased social distancing rules to their lowest in October, allowing risky venues such as clubs and karaoke bars to reopen, although experts have warned of a viral increase during winter as people spend longer hours indoors.

Jaehun Jung, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon Medical College in Incheon, said he predicts infections will gradually slow down over the next two weeks.

The quiet streets and long queues meandering around test stations in Seoul, which temporarily provide free tests to anyone regardless of whether they have symptoms or clear reasons to suspect infections, show a return to public vigor after months of pandemic fatigue.

Officials also block private social gatherings until Jan. 3, close ski resorts, ban hotels from selling more than half of their rooms, and fine restaurants if they accept groups of five or more people.

However, lowering deliveries to the levels seen in early November – 100 to 200 a day – would be unrealistic, Jung said, predicting the daily figure to resolve around 300 to 500 cases.

The higher baseline may require stricter social distance until vaccines are launched – a terrible prospect for low-wage workers and the self-employed, who drive the country’s service sector, the part of the economy most affected by the virus.

“The government must do everything to ensure sufficient supplies and increase the administration of vaccines to the earliest possible point,” Jung said.

South Korea plans to secure about 86 million vaccines next year, which would be enough to cover 46 million people in a population of 51 million. The first supplies, which will be AstraZeneca vaccines produced by a local manufacturer, are expected to be delivered in February and March. Officials plan to complete vaccination from 60% to 70% of the population by around November.
It is disappointing that the shootings will not come sooner, although officials have insisted that South Korea could allow waiting access, as its explosion is not as terrible as in the US or Europe.

South Korea’s earlier success could be attributed to its experience in combating a 2015 outbreak of MERS, the southeastern respiratory syndrome, caused by a different coronavirus.

After South Korea reported its first COVID-19 patient on Jan. 20, KDCA quickly recognized the importance of mass testing and accelerated an approval process that had private companies producing millions of tests in just weeks.

When infections soared in the Daegu region in February and March, health authorities managed to contain the situation by April after offensively mobilizing technological tools to track contacts and enforce quarantines.

But that success was also a product of good luck – most infections in Taegu were linked to a single church congregation. Health workers are now finding it much harder to track distributions in the populous capital, where crowds appear almost everywhere.
South Korea has so far withstood its boom without blockages, but a decision on Sunday to raise distancing limits to the highest “Tier-3” could potentially close hundreds of thousands of non-essential enterprises across the nation.

That could be best, said Yoo Eun-sun, who is struggling to pay rent for three small music teaching academies she manages in Incheon and Siheung, also near Seoul, amid a shortage of students and temporary stops.

“Which parents would send their kids to piano lessons” unless broadcasts decline quickly and decisively, she said.

Yoo also feels that the government’s middle approach to social distance, which targeted specific business activities, while keeping open the wider part of the economy, has placed an unfair financial burden on companies like hers.

“Whether it’s teaching academies, gyms, yoga studios or karaoke bars, the same set of companies are being hit again and again,” she said. “How long could we go on?”