INSIGHT-How S.Korea's early coronavirus success left it scrambling to contain a new wave

* Officials say excessive trust undermined preparatory efforts
* Contact tracing burdened by new type of outbreak
* Government forced to defend vaccine policy when concerns arise
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* Local executives are calling for new approaches to testing and social distancing
By Sangmi Cha, Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith
INCHEON / SUWON, South Korea, Dec. 24 (Reuters) - On the fourth floor of Incheon City Hall, South Korean epidemiological investigator Jang Hanaram's office is filled with six desks, two folding beds and one table with instant noodles and energy drinks and digestive aids.
Jang is one of six employees who work 24-hour shifts in confined spaces, tracking down and contacting potential coronavirus cases in South Korea's third largest city as the country battles its largest wave of infections to date.
Jang said he knew this wave was different in early December when the bright red messages reporting confirmed cases began to multiply in the chat room on his computer screen.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is really getting out of hand,'" he told Reuters.
South Korea won international praise earlier this year when it quickly suppressed outbreaks by deploying an aggressive high-tech contact tracing system that mined cell phone location data, credit card records, CCTV footage, and other information to track down and isolate potential patients.
But after a summer touting South Korea's approach as a role model for the world, officials recognized the success of those earlier efforts that resulted in an overconfidence that led them to stem a third wave and strive, a cautious one Defend vaccination timeline.
In eight interviews with Reuters, front-line fighters in the war on the virus in South Korea revealed what they believed were critical government mistakes. Mistakes included not investing enough manpower and training in the traceability program, not mobilizing private hospitals fast enough to free up more beds, indecisive social distancing measures, and a slow approach to securing and adopting vaccines.
To use its digital tools, South Korea relies on an army of public health workers and conscripts like Jang, a medical school graduate who works as a contact tracer instead of military service.
Jang says the overworked and underpaid conscripts or other public health doctors move in and out of their positions too quickly, while many of the new recruits have little to no training.
"The feeling of tiredness is very high now," he said.
Compared to the disasters in the US, Europe and other virus hotspots, the 52,550 cases in South Korea and the daily high of 1,097 are still low.
However, this new wave is more persistent and widespread than any previous wave and has resulted in an unprecedented increase in deaths, with some patients dying before hospital beds became available. The number of active cases is now more than double what it was in March.
"Despite the warnings, overconsciousness and over-optimism had surfaced on many people's minds," said Lee Jae-myung, governor of Gyeonggi Province, the country's most populous region.
When asked if the government was overconfident, Yoon Tae-ho, director general of public health policy, admitted that there were some areas where authorities should have acted faster, including mobilizing various medical resources.
"We very much regret that we have fallen behind, where we should be one step ahead of the virus," he said at a briefing on Tuesday. Still, he said authorities were working to fix problems and were confident the country could "tackle this third wave when government, medical teams and people join forces".
TRACING SYSTEM CLOSED
Unlike previous waves of infections, which were mostly focused on single events or organizations like churches or nightclubs, the current surge in cases is being driven by smaller clusters in places like restaurants and offices that are harder to track. And almost a third of the most recent cases come from completely unknown origins.
Since the pandemic began, South Korea has more than doubled the number of investigators from around 130 to 305, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
The government recently mobilized members of the military and police to add to their ranks, but it will take time to train more long-term, experienced workers, Yoon said.
Lim Seung-kwan, chief of Gyeonggi Province's COVID-19 Task Force, said it was time to end mass persecution in favor of more targeted epidemiological investigations to better understand the specific spread patterns of the virus while freeing up trained doctors to provide patient care .
"It might be better to redeploy those who did the testing and tracking," he said.
Due to the workload, Jang said they have already started to reduce their persecution, such as stop recording movements where the patient was in one place for a few minutes while wearing a mask.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
Gyeonggi Governor Lee, a member of President Moon Jae-in's ruling Democratic Party, agrees that the country can no longer rely on the tracing of each individual case and calls for more flexible measures such as mass testing in specific areas and using less accurate , but faster antigen test kits for pre-screening.
The overconfidence led to a phased approach to social distancing measures, Lee added, arguing that more drastic but temporary measures would have resulted in less public fatigue.
South Korea never imposed full bans and did not distribute vouchers until November to encourage domestic travel and tourism. The prime minister has stated that imposing the highest levels of social distancing due to the economic damage would be a last resort.
Lee and leaders of Seoul and Incheon cities were frustrated this week with the national government giving business priority over containing infections, and set strict limits on the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Ma Sang-hyuk, vice president of the Korean Vaccine Society, told Reuters that the feeling of complacency also shaped the country's vaccination policy. The government saw low daily cases over the summer as evidence they didn't need to rush.
"The government overlooked the pandemic as daily cases began to stabilize and thought they could eradicate them without the vaccine," he said.
In the face of criticism, his government's plan to start delivering vaccines in February or March - months after some other countries - promised to be too relaxed. Moon promised Tuesday that a public vaccination program would "not start too late," and his office said the country would eventually buy enough doses for more than 85% of the population.
Lim said the government should have prepared for worst-case scenarios but failed to step up efforts made in previous waves, such as securing adequate beds in private hospitals quickly.
"We came to believe that if we wear masks well and stick to what we did, everything would be fine," he said. "But this belief kept the authorities from investigating why they were acting slowly and whether there were lessons to be learned from both successes and failures." (Reporting by Sangmi Cha, Hyonhee Shin, and Josh Smith; editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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