After early success, S. Korea sleepwalks into virus crisis

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - South Korea appeared to have won the battle against coronavirus: its rapid testing, contact tracing, and quarantine quickly paid off as it weathered an early outbreak without the economic pain of a lockdown. But a deadly resurgence has reached new heights during the week of Christmas, sparking the search for the soul as the nation got into crisis.
The 1,241 infections on Christmas Day were the largest daily increase. Another 1,132 cases were reported on Saturday, bringing the number of cases in South Korea to 55,902.
In the last 15 days alone, over 15,000 were added. Another 221 deaths over the same period, the deadliest stretch, resulted in 793 fatalities.
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As the numbers continue to rise, the shock to people's livelihoods deepens and public confidence in the government wanes. Officials could decide to max out social distancing measures on Sunday after weeks of resistance.
Tighter restrictions may be inevitable as the transfers have outpaced efforts to expand hospital capacity.
In the greater Seoul area, more facilities have been designated for COVID-19 treatment and dozens of general hospitals have been directed to provide more intensive care units for virus patients. Hundreds of troops were deployed to help with order tracking.
At least four patients have died in their homes or long-term care facilities while waiting to be admitted this month, said Kwak Jin, an official with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. The agency said 299 of 16,577 active patients were in severe or critical condition.
"Our hospital system will not collapse, but the rush of COVID-19 patients has hampered our response," said Choi Won Suk, professor of infectious diseases at Ansan Hospital, Korea University west of Seoul.
Choi said the government should have done more to prepare hospitals for a winter flood.
"We have patients with all kinds of serious illnesses in our intensive care units and they cannot share space with COVID-19 patients, so it's difficult," Choi said. "It's the same medical staff who've been fighting the virus for all these months. There's an accumulation of fatigue."
Critics say President Moon Jae-in's government became complacent after quickly containing the outbreak this spring in the southeastern city of Daegu.
The past few weeks have highlighted the risk of placing economic concerns before public health with vaccines at least months away. Officials had brought social distancing rules to their lowest possible level in October, allowing high-risk venues such as clubs and karaoke rooms to reopen, despite experts warning of a virus wave in winter when people spend extended hours indoors.
Jaehun Jung, professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University College of Medicine in Incheon, believes the infections will gradually slow down over the next two weeks.
The quiet streets and long lines that meander around the test stations in Seoul, temporarily offering free tests to anyone, whether they have symptoms or clear reasons for suspicion of infection, are showing a return of public attention after months of pandemic fatigue.
Through January 3, officials are also restricting private social gatherings, closing ski resorts, banning hotels from selling more than half of their rooms, and fining restaurants for hosting groups of five or more.
Still, it would be unrealistic to bring the transmissions down to early November levels - 100 to 200 a day - said Jung, reckoning the daily number will settle around 300 to 500 cases.
The higher baseline could require greater social distancing until vaccines are rolled out - a terrible prospect for low-income workers and self-employed who run the country's service sector, the part of the economy the virus has damaged the most.
"The government should do everything possible to ensure adequate supplies and to promote the administration of vaccines at the earliest possible point in time," said Jung.
South Korea plans to source around 86 million doses of vaccines over the next year, which would be enough to supply 46 million people out of a population of 51 million. The first shipments, which will be AstraZeneca vaccines made by a local manufacturing partner, are expected to arrive in February and March. Officials plan to complete vaccination of 60% to 70% of the population by around November.
There is disappointment that the gunfire does not come sooner, despite officials insisting that South Korea could afford a wait and see approach as its outbreak is not as bad as America or Europe.
South Korea's past success could be due to its experience fighting a 2015 MERS outbreak, Middle East respiratory syndrome, caused by another coronavirus.
After South Korea reported its first COVID-19 patient on Jan. 20, the KDCA quickly realized the importance of mass testing and expedited an approval process that saw private companies run millions of tests in just a few weeks.
As infections rose in the Daegu area in February and March, health officials managed to contain the situation by April after aggressively mobilizing technological tools to track down contacts and enforce quarantines.
But this success was also a product of luck - most infections in Daegu were associated with a single church. Health workers are now finding it much harder to follow broadcasts in the populous capital, where clusters are popping up almost everywhere.
South Korea has weathered its outbreak so far without bans, but a decision on Sunday to raise the distance restrictions to the highest "Tier-3" could potentially shut down hundreds of thousands of non-essential businesses across the country.
That could be for the best, said Yoo Eun-sun, who is struggling to pay the rent for three small music teaching academies she runs in Incheon and Siheung, also near Seoul, amid student shortages and occasional shutdowns.
"What parents would send their children to piano lessons" if the transmissions didn't decrease quickly and decisively, she said.
Yoo also believes that the government's mediocre approach to social distancing, which targets certain business activities while keeping the wider part of the economy open, has placed an unfair financial burden on companies like theirs.
"Whether it's tutoring academies, gyms, yoga studies or karaokes, the same companies keep hit," she said. "How long could we go on?"

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