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Coronavirus complacency feared as S. Korea rolls back mitigation measures

Seoul elementary school children have their temperatures checked and hands sanitized on Monday morning. (Yonhap)
Seoul elementary school children have their temperatures checked and hands sanitized on Monday morning. (Yonhap)

South Korea rolled back most of its physical distancing restrictions Monday, after two national holiday weekends passed without a surge in known infections -- so far.

Korea conducted 5,127 tests Sunday and detected 97 more cases of the novel coronavirus, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s report Monday. The cumulative number of official cases is now 21,301.

Ten coronavirus patients have died over the last seven days, nine of whom were aged 60 or older. The disease is more lethal as patients get older, with the fatality rate at 21.4 percent for those aged 80 or above.

The government on Sunday announced Korea would ease out of intensive physical distancing despite falling short of the benchmarks set out for the purpose in June.

In order to advance into the least restrictive tier of mitigation measures, the country’s daily case count should remain below 50 for a sustained period of time and the proportion of untraceable cases should be under 5 percent.

Data shows contact tracing has failed to identify the source of infection for around 20 percent of cases confirmed in the past week. Although health officials have welcomed the dip in the number of daily diagnoses to below 100 since Thursday, significantly less testing took place over the period. For the last three days, Korea performed only 5,125 tests per day on average.

In making the exception, the Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo explained the decision as being made for the purpose of “rendering the orders more sustainable in the long term,” citing “public exhaustion with protracted social distancing.”

The minister has said during last week’s parliamentary audit that future disease control policies will take a direction that “gives people more liberties while at the same time holding them liable for the consequences.”

Much of the relaxed guidance which comes into effect Monday relies on voluntary compliance. The ban on indoor gatherings of 50 people or more has been lifted, and former coronavirus hotspots such as bars and nightclubs can return to near-normal operations. Providing personal information at risky places including food outlets is still mandatory.

Senior health official Yoon Tae-ho said in Monday’s press briefing that the risks of the two successive holiday weekends on coronavirus spread are “believed to have passed.” “But that is not to say the situation does not warrant close monitoring,” he added.

The director of the public health agency Jung Eun-kyeong warned against complacency setting in during a briefing held the same day. “Relaxing the curbs does not mean we are somehow safer,” she said, calling for continued efforts to catch up with infections as they occur through speedy contact tracing.

Health experts complain the country needs to step up its testing, especially as winter -- the season when respiratory illnesses typically thrive -- approaches.

“Korea is not testing nearly enough,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University Medical Center in Guro, southern Seoul. “Extensive testing is how we can reduce the number of patients who are going undiagnosed due to absence of obvious symptoms, but may just as well be capable of infecting others.”

Public health authorities have said over 30 percent of known patients here exhibited no symptoms. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 40 percent of infections are asymptomatic.

Pulmonologist Dr. Jung Ki-suck of Hallym University Medical Center in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province, said the recent decline in testing may be attributable to increasing share of cases with an unknown route of transmission. “We can’t test contacts of patients if we can’t identify them,” he said.

Jung, who led the KCDC in 2016-17, also pointed out Korea’s flu preparations were facing a setback from vaccination programs being suspended over mishandling issues.

In addition to the around 480,000 doses of flu shots that have been recalled due to a cold chain breach, some 615,000 doses have been banned from use after they were found to contain unusual particles, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said Friday.

“This means there will be over one million people who won’t be vaccinated even if they wanted to,” he said.

Common flu symptoms such as fever, dry cough, sore throat are also the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19, Jung pointed out. “Most hospitals and clinics are unable to take in patients displaying coronavirus-like symptoms before they are tested, which can delay necessary care,” he said.

As the pandemic deepens, screening travel-related cases is imperative, according to Pulmonologist Dr. Chun Eun-mi of western Seoul’s Ewha University Medical Center. The World Health Organization’s updates show the disease has sickened over 37 million people globally, with cases rising by hundreds of thousands.

“Latest trends indicate between 10 to 20 cases tied to international travel are being reported every day,” she said. “Infections arriving from abroad will continue to pose a threat even if the domestic situation stabilizes.”

Preventive medicine specialist Dr. Jun Byung-yool, who headed the KCDC from 2011-13, said he believes the past nine months of the coronavirus crisis have likely prepared the country enough for slackening controls.

“Policy makers, medical professionals as well as the general public have a better understanding of the disease now,” he said. “I think at this stage, we can trust that people know what they have to do to protect themselves, and open up businesses so long as the outbreaks remain in a scale that can be managed within the capacity of the health system.”

By Kim Arin (