South Korea and the United States have taken very different approaches to control the spread of Coronavirus, and as we see the outcomes of both of these methods, it has become clear which one was superior. While the number of new cases in the US each day is still rising, South Korea has seen a decline for the past 5 weeks. Their efficient procedure has made them an international success story, while the US is being used as a prime example of what not to do.
South Korea saw its first confirmed case on January 20th, but the real wake-up call came with “Patient 31.” Patient 31 was a so-called “super-spreader,” as she happened to be in contact with an immense amount of people leading up to her diagnosis on February 18th, hundreds of whom later tested positive for the virus. Despite this seemingly uncontrollable spread, South Korea was able to locate possibly infected people through a process called Contact Tracing. In a typical use of contact tracing, when someone has been diagnosed with Coronavirus public health workers will reach out to the individual, make sure that they are in isolation, and figure out who they may have been in contact with. South Korea takes this a step further by using GPS from cars and phones, security camera footage and credit card records to trace the patient’s steps. Then, a health worker will reach out to those people to make sure they are aware of the situation, monitor their symptoms, and, for someone who was in close contact, mandate them to quarantine for 14 days.
To enforce this strict protocol, South Korea has developed apps that have timelines of the buses every citizen takes, stops they get off, stores they go into, etc. This means that even if a health official fails to contact an individual who came into contact with someone who was COVID-19 positive, that individual can track their own movements and be alerted to this contact.
Finally, in contact tracing, an official will do a follow-up. The follow-up changes from country to country, but in South Korea, a government case officer checks in twice a day, and an app on the patient’s phone will notify their officer if they leave quarantine, which will result in a fine of up to $2,500. This method, while strict, played a large role in South Korea’s success, as it ensured that there were fewer people like Patient 31.
Another large part of South Korea’s success is its unparalleled testing procedure. They jumped into testing almost immediately, instituting thermal temperature scans in many large buildings, such as apartments, hotels, and office buildings, to make sure that no one has a fever. Further, their walk-in testing centers are extremely safe for doctors, and very efficient. For example their drive-through test center only takes 10 minutes and results are available the next day. Moreover, testing is free, further encouraging people to get tested. As of April 19th, South Korea has tested 559,109 people, around 1% of its 51.2 million person population, and by April 10th was producing 100,000 test kits a day. Additionally, the South Korean government has remained clear and transparent about the dangers of the virus, the current situation in the country, and what prevention measures are being taken, ensuring cooperation from the public during quarantines and evacuations. The president, Moon Jae-in, has taken a step back, and is letting health officials make the decisions, showing his willingness to take Coronavirus seriously.
The response of the US, however, is not so commendable. The first confirmed case in the US was only two days after South Korea, on January 22nd, but while South Koreans were advised to take caution because the virus poses a serious threat, President Trump reported that “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine,” and the US failed to enact any of the three steps in South Korea’s effective procedure.
#1: Contact Tracing: The US just does not do it on a wide scale basis so people like “Patient 31” walk around in crowded areas infecting people, oblivious to the fact that they were even exposed to the virus.
#2: Testing: Despite the fact that CDC produced the first Coronavirus test at around the same time as other public health departments around the world, the US soon fell behind. Tests were being shipped at a lethargic pace compared to the rest of the world, and then, to make matters worse, it was revealed that the tests were actually inaccurate and unusable. It took until February 28 for the FDA rules that prohibited private companies from developing their own tests to be rolled back, but by then it was too late. Lack of testing had already caused cases in the US to skyrocket for two reasons. First, because many schools, restaurants, workplaces, and other public spaces were still open, giving people who did not know they were infected the opportunity to walk around and spread the virus, and secondly, because, without testing, health officials were unable to get an accurate picture of just how bad the infection rates were in the US. As of right now, the US has finally tested the same percent of the population as South Korea (1%), but while only 0.02% of South Korea’s population tested positive, 0.2% of the US’s did, making our rate of positive tests over 10x higher, proving that the US is doing too little too late.
#3: Transparency: This was the step that the US has failed most, other than the Contact Tracing, President Trump continuously reported that Coronavirus was a minor threat and that the US had it under control, despite numerous medical professionals, including renowned infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, telling him the exact opposite. These statements not only lured US citizens into a false sense of security, which led to the mass spread of the virus during festivals like Mardi Gras and Saint Patrick’s Day, but also diminished any trust that people had in the government once they realized that they had been lied to. Now, with 42 states and select cities in 3 additional states issuing shelter in place orders, the US is finally taking the necessary steps towards controlling the virus, but only time will tell the price of our governments’ delayed action.