SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea appeared to be winning the battle against the coronavirus: The testing, contact tracing and quarantine efforts came very quickly as it survived an early outbreak without suffering the economic lockdown. But a fatal comeback reached new heights during Christmas week, prompting a soul-searching on how the nation entered into crisis.
The number of injuries, which reached 1,241 on Christmas Day, was the largest daily increase. Another 1,132 cases were reported on Saturday, bringing the number of cases in South Korea to 55,902.
More than 15,000 added in just the last 15 days. The death toll reached 221 during the same period, the bloodiest, with the death toll at 793.
As numbers continue to rise, the shock to people’s livelihoods deepens and erodes public confidence in government. Officials could decide to maximize social distancing measures on Sunday, after weeks of resistance.
Tightening restrictions may be inevitable as transfers outweigh efforts to expand hospitals’ capacities.
In the greater Seoul region, more facilities have been designated to treat COVID-19 and dozens of public hospitals have been ordered to allocate more intensive care units for virus patients. Hundreds of soldiers have been deployed to help track down contracts.
At least four patients have died in their homes or long-term care facilities while awaiting their admission this month, Kwak Jin, an official with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, said. The agency said 299 of 16,577 active patients were in severe or critical condition.
“Our hospital system will not collapse, but the drift in COVID-19 patients has greatly hampered our response,” said Choi Won-suk, a professor of infectious diseases at Korea University Hospital, Ansane, west of Seoul.
Choi said the government should have done more to prepare hospitals for the winter increase.
“We have patients suffering from all kinds of serious illness in our intensive care units and they can’t share any space with COVID-19 patients, so it’s tough,” Choi said. It is the same medical staff who have been fighting the virus all these months. There is an accumulation of fatigue. ”
Critics say President Moon Jae’s government has become complacent after rapidly containing the outbreak this spring, which was centered in the southeastern city of Daegu.
Past weeks have underscored the risks of placing economic concerns on public health when vaccines are at least months away. Officials relaxed social distancing rules to their lowest levels in October, allowing high-risk places like clubs and karaoke rooms to reopen, although experts have warned of a viral increase during the winter when people spend longer hours indoors.
Jihonjung, professor of preventive medicine at the Juchon University School of Medicine in Incheon, said he expects the infection to gradually slow down over the next two weeks.
Quiet streets and long queues that wind around Seoul’s testing stations, which are temporarily providing free tests to anyone regardless of whether they have symptoms or clear reasons to suspect infection, are showing a return of public alertness after months of epidemic fatigue.
Officials are also cracking down on private social gatherings until January 3, closing ski resorts, banning hotels from selling more than half of their rooms and imposing fines on restaurants if they accept groups of five or more.
However, Young said that cutting transmission to levels seen in early November – 100 to 200 per day – would be unrealistic, and predicted the daily figure would settle around 300 to 500 cases.
A higher baseline may necessitate tightening social distancing until vaccines are rolled out – a harrowing view of the low-income and self-employed workers driving the country’s service sector, the part of the economy hardest hit by the virus.
“The government should do everything it can to secure adequate supplies and move forward with administering vaccines to the nearest point possible,” Young said.
South Korea plans to secure about 86 million doses of vaccines next year, which will be enough to cover 46 million people out of a population of 51 million. The first supplies, which will be AstraZeneca vaccines produced by a local manufacturing partner, are expected to be delivered in February and March. Officials plan to complete the vaccination of 60% to 70% of the population by November.
There is a disappointment that the shots will not come soon, though officials insisted that South Korea can withstand a wait-and-see approach because its outbreak is not as horrific as it is in America or Europe.
South Korea’s previous success can be attributed to its experience in combating the outbreak of the Coronavirus in 2015, which is the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, caused by a different Coronavirus.
After South Korea reported its first COVID-19 patient on January 20, KDCA quickly realized the importance of mass testing and accelerated the approval process that has seen private companies produce millions of tests in just weeks.
When infections spiked in the Daegu area in February and March, health authorities were able to contain the situation by April after aggressively mobilizing technological tools to track contacts and impose quarantines.
But this success was also the product of luck – most injuries in Daegu were related to a single church congregation. Health workers are now having a harder time tracking transfers in the densely populated metropolitan area, with clusters appearing almost everywhere.
South Korea has so far escaped the outbreak without lockdown, but a decision on Sunday to lift distance restrictions to the top of “Tier-3” could result in hundreds of thousands of non-essential businesses across the country being closed.
Yoo Eun Soon, who is struggling to pay the rent for three small music academies she runs in Incheon and Seheung, also near Seoul, said this could be for the best, amid student scarcity and intermittent closures.
“What parents send their children to piano lessons,” she said, “unless the transmission drops rapidly and decisively.”
Yu also feels that the government’s moderate approach to social distancing, which has targeted specific businesses while keeping the broader part of the economy open, has placed an unfair financial burden on companies like her.
“Whether it’s teaching academies, gyms, yoga studies, or karaoke, the same group of companies is being beaten over and over again,” she said. “How long can we go on?”