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Elite South Korean Contact Tracers Present the World Beat COVID-19

Elite South Korean Contact Tracers Show the World How to Beat COVID-19


(Bloomberg) — In Could, when a coronavirus outbreak hit nightclubs within the South Korean capital of Seoul, well being officers rapidly unleashed their model of the Navy Seals — elite groups of epidemiologists, database specialists and laboratory technicians.

An old-school, shoe-leather investigation confirmed the virus had jumped from a night-club customer, to a scholar, to a taxi driver after which alarmingly to a warehouse worker who labored with 4,000 others.

Hundreds of the worker’s co-workers, their relations and contacts had been approached and 9,000 folks had been ultimately examined. Two weeks later, the warehouse flareup was principally extinguished and infections curtailed at 152.

Learn extra: What South Korea’s Nightclub Coronavirus Outbreak Can Train Different International locations as They Reopen

The work of such so-called Instant Response Groups gives a have a look at how South Korea — as soon as the second worst hit by the coronavirus — has succeeded in largely quelling its unfold with out the lockdowns which have derailed lives worldwide. At a time when cities from Los Angeles to Melbourne to Tokyo are grappling with resurgences, South Korea’s playbook gives some of the profitable blueprints but for holding a illness that’s killed greater than 600,000 worldwide.

The tally of latest circumstances within the Asian nation — which pioneered the testing blitz technique — has by no means fallen to zero, however the variety of each day new circumstances have largely ranged from 30 to 60 for 2 months after peaking at greater than 800 in February. Evaluate that with Los Angeles county, which added 2,014 circumstances on Thursday alone.

South Korea’s technique can be a distinction with the cruel shutdowns instituted in components of China or the tourism blockade carried out by New Zealand in an try and fully stamp out the virus. The Asian nation meticulously targets harmful hotspots after which merely permits most individuals to steer lives and run companies unimpeded.

“We step in when there’s an opportunity of large-scale transmission and our important work is to search out the connecting hyperlinks between circumstances and forestall a flareup,” mentioned Kwon Donghyok, deputy scientific director on the nation’s Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention, who oversees the investigative squads. “Discovering potential contacts and investigating the reason for an infection are the spine of what we do.”

The nation now has one of many lowest charges for infections with unknown origin, at about 8%, in comparison with greater than 50% for different international locations with latest virus resurgences. Flareups have shrunk from a weekly common of a couple of dozen to lower than six this week.

South Korea has a profitable technique as a result of it realized from the bitter expertise of the previous, one thing Western international locations didn’t benefit from. The majority of its greater than 14,000 circumstances and almost 300 deaths are associated to the flareup at a spiritual sect in February and March. Since then, processes developed after the nation’s 2015 outbreak of the Center East Respiratory Syndrome have helped it stop a second wave of the brand new coronavirus.

South Korea’s CDC has about 100 epidemiology investigators, up from simply two in the course of the MERS outbreak. Throughout a big potential outbreak, a number of are pulled for the Instant Response Workforce, which normally has about six to eight members.

On any given day, officers examine potential flareups at numerous areas from church group gatherings to golf equipment for badminton or unique vehicles. Infections at low-risk amenities are first dealt with by municipal well being officers, whereas an Instant Response Workforce is known as in for high-risk areas.

Different nations have additionally taken steps to hint contacts and widen testing, with international locations like Taiwan and Germany efficiently screening to curb the virus. However some have had extra problem just lately. Infections in Melbourne spiked to a report this month as a result of its efforts weren’t suitably designed for its migrant inhabitants. India has had some success in following contacts and curbing an outbreak within the Mumbai slum of Dharavi, however replicating that throughout the breadth of a rustic with 1.three billion folks has confirmed to be onerous.

“The important thing energy of South Korea’s dealing with of the coronavirus pandemic is its potential to do a radical epidemiology investigation on each affected person,” mentioned Jung Ki-suck, a former CDC director and now professor at Hallym College Medical Middle, referring to the detailed public well being tracing carried out by officers. “The epidemiology investigation has by no means been so vital as a result of we are able to scale back the dimensions of outbreaks and even block new circumstances from occurring.”

That exhaustive and meticulous investigation technique paid off when investigators had been capable of hint the warehouse outbreak after following a flareup at nightclubs within the stylish Itaewon neighborhood, mentioned Kwon, who investigated the MERS outbreak and was in Rio de Janeiro to analyze a attainable outbreak of the Zika virus in the course of the 2016 Olympics.

Learn extra: Mapping the Unfold of the Coronavirus Outbreak Across the U.S. and the World

The CDC found {that a} nightclub customer who was a non-public tutor unfold the virus to one among his college students. The scholar, who was unaware of the an infection, used a coin-operated karaoke room, transmitting the virus to a taxi-driver singing in an adjoining room.

The taxi-driver additionally labored as a part-time photographer and took pictures of a celebration at a buffet restaurant within the space the place the distribution middle is positioned.

By surveillance footage and cell phone information, investigators contacted everybody who had been on the restaurant across the time of the celebration. Amongst those that had been contaminated on the restaurant was a girl who had labored for a day on the warehouse.

To make sure, a number of the techniques utilized in South Korea, which has a inhabitants of about 51 million, is likely to be tough to copy in vastly populated rising international locations. And the Asian nation has benefitted from surveillance expertise which may not be acceptable to residents of many Western nations.

Tracing potential contacts in South Korea concerned reviewing tons of of hours of surveillance digital camera footage and going by cell phone and bank card transactions. So-called CCTVs are ubiquitous in South Korea as just about all streets and workplaces have them.

“Different international locations merely don’t have the capability to do these thorough investigations on sufferers,” mentioned Jung, the previous CDC director. “We had a smaller absolute variety of circumstances than different nations, however extra importantly, the social norm, the place persons are okay with their privateness being infringed for the broader public curiosity, allowed complete investigations, which is simply unimaginable in western international locations.”

South Korea has mentioned it’s anticipating some spike in circumstances amongst building employees coming back from virus hit Iraq and extra circumstances from a Russian ship at one among its ports. Whereas these are principally imported circumstances introduced in from the skin, South Korea’s virus squad is aware of how tenuous its features are, and the significance of vigilance. Many international locations, together with Asia’s monetary capital, Hong Kong, have efficiently crushed again the virus for months, solely to see it make a sudden comeback.

“Any mass infections we now have witnessed have occurred within the blink of an eye fixed,” Kwon mentioned. “If we miss a tiny piece of a hyperlink or let a small element slip by, we’ll for certain be experiencing a resurgence in circumstances.”