S. Korea forced to reimpose restrictions as COVID-19 cases increase after reopening in early May

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euronews (in English) / YouTube Coronavirus Restrictions return in South Korea 1590772253.jpg...
euronews (in English) / YouTube

South Korea was once considered the gold standard for its rapid response to COVID-19. By early May, it had started to see days with no new domestic cases. The government warned the virus could rebound but many people regarded South Korea as evidence that a country could beat coronavirus. Based on their low incidence rate, on May 6, South Korea implemented new guidelines called “everyday life quarantine”:

“Each individual and our society will have to be responsible for containing the virus,” Vice-Health Minister Kim Ganglip said during a press briefing Monday. “It is not about the country going back to where it was before the Covid-19 outbreak. It is about making new norms and culture.”

Some guidance remains. “People need to comply with basic guidelines, such as maintaining at least two meters of distance from each other, even after we move on to the ‘everyday life quarantine,’” the KCDC’s Jeong said.

And Chung admitted that public pressure had been an issue in the recent decisions. “The new guidelines are more of a compromise amid rising social and economic burdens sparked by the pandemic,” he said.

They eased social distancing in order to get life back to normal, but it’s a new normal that relies heavily on individual cooperation and responsibility:

The guidelines, confirmed Sunday after weeks of discussions, call for people to stay home if they show symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever, or have gone overseas in the past two weeks. Regardless of place, people are advised to keep a distance of 2 meters when they meet others and to follow basic personal hygiene routines, such as washing their hands and wearing masks.

“It means that each individual and our society will have to be responsible for containing the virus,” Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said during a press briefing Monday. “It is not about the country going back to where it was before the COVID-19 outbreak. It is about making new norms and culture.”

[…] Health authorities said they plan to use pooled samples to regularly test those who are vulnerable to virus infections, so that they can better stem the “silent” spread of COVID-19. They will also focus on quarantine measures for schools, as students are to physically attend classes later this month.

Additionally:

At work, people were urged to minimize face-to-face occasions and focus on their disinfection routine.

For store owners or small business operators, the government asked them to limit mass-gathering events. Those who plan to attend religious activities are advised to wear face masks.

By May 13, cases in South Korea measurably increased despite these sensible precautions. Today, they’re forced to reinstate some restrictions:

Following an emergency meeting, the government decided to shut public facilities such as parks, museums and state-run theatres in the metropolitan area over the next two weeks to slow the spread of the virus.

Officials also advised private tutorial schools and computer gaming lounges in the area to close during the period or otherwise enforce anti-virus measures.

[…] KCDC director Jeong Eun-Kyeong said the country may need to reimpose social distancing restrictions, noting it’s becoming increasingly difficult for health workers to track transmissions amid increasing public activity.

South Korea has established metrics for determining whether to re-impose social distancing restrictions:

“The next two weeks are crucial to prevent the spread of the infection in the metropolitan area,” Park said, adding: “We will have to return to social distancing if we fail.”

The health minister said the government will be forced to re-impose an all-out social distancing campaign if the country sees more than 50 new cases for at least seven consecutive days.

Note the key phrase “the government will be forced to…” There are aspects of South Korea’s response that rely on individual responsibility, which perhaps should have been mandated. But they got this part right: “If we get x new infections over y consecutive days, we are required to tighten things up again.” That’s much more prescriptive than what the CDC says about a potential second wave:

“While some communities will progress sequentially through the reopening phases, there is the possibility of recrudescence in some areas,” the CDC acknowledged, referring to the possibility of a new outbreak. “Given the potential for a rebound in the number of cases or level of community transmission, a low threshold for reinstating more stringent mitigation standards will be essential.”

What threshold? How stringent? The CDC won’t say because trump doesn’t want to burden businesses.

California’s reopening is occurring too soon for Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody, so the Bay Area isn’t going to relax its restrictions yet:

With Gov. Gavin Newsom’s blessing, several counties are ramping up their efforts to reopen stores, churches, barbershops and salons — steps that move the state into the third phase of its four-phase reopening plan. Newsom met with gym owners Wednesday and pledged that guidance for reopening fitness centers would be coming soon.

[…] Still, Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said her county will continue reopening sectors of the economy piece by piece — while waiting at least two weeks between changes to see whether they caused upticks in hospitalizations and deaths. She said her approach has helped save lives.

“If we make a change and we don’t pause to see what the impact has been, then we’re blind and we cannot see what our next action may do,” Cody said in a video posted to the county public health department’s Facebook page Wednesday. It can take up to two weeks for a person infected with coronavirus to begin experiencing symptoms.

Dr. Cody’s taking steps designed to prevent Silicon Valley from becoming like South Korea, and I wish other leaders would proceed as cautiously as she is. Even if my favorite restaurant reopens, you couldn’t pay me to go inside and eat because eating out (or getting a haircut) isn’t worth anyone’s health or life. Dr. Cody’s caution is paying off for the Bay Area:

After 1,913 more people tested positive for the novel coronavirus in California Wednesday, the statewide total surged to 101,739 while 90 additional deaths brought the statewide toll to 3,912. Los Angeles County accounted for 52 of the 90 deaths in the state while the 10-county Bay Area recorded just two deaths, one in Santa Clara County and one in Solano County.

For comparison’s sake, note that the population of Solano County is estimated at 443,877, whereas Santa Clara County’s population is about 1,933,383. Dr. Cody’s swift and severe reaction to COVID-19 is saving lives. I’m going to follow her lead regardless of what other leaders, including Gov. Newsom, allow.

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