New cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) are surging in Europe and the United States. With the outbreaks morphed into a global pandemic, it has become more likely that people entering Korea could be a new source of infections.
With sporadic cluster infections occurring at nursing centers and churches, local experts warned that the authorities should reorganize the disease control system to brace for the third wave of transmissions.
According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Korea has reported 8,897 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of midnight Sunday, up by 98 from the previous day. In Daegu alone, six COVID-19 patients died, pushing up the death toll to 111.
With the increase of confirmed cases among arrivals from Europe, the government ordered to test all people entering Korea from the continent from Sunday. Those with related symptoms will receive tests at a quarantine facility at the Incheon International Airport, and those without symptoms will move to a temporary facility to get tested.
Korea-specific COVID-19 projection urgently needed
As COVID-19 quickly became a pandemic before a treatment arrived, Korea needs to prepare for a long-term battle against the infectious disease, experts noted.
They urged the government to come up with a COVID-19 scenario specifically projected for Korea to predict how the outbreaks will play out with the local measures.
“The U.S., Europe, and the World Health Organization are making ‘models’ as to how the COVID-19 upheaval will unfold. As the outbreaks will not end shortly, making predictions are essential to fight the disease for the long term,” said Kim Woo-ju, a professor at the Infectious Disease Department of Korea University College of Medicine. “Even if other countries successfully develop a vaccine against COVID-19, Koreans might not be able to get them.”
Kim went on to say that Korea should not be too optimistic about importing a COVID-19 vaccine. “The U.S. and China are developing a vaccine, but if their domestic vaccine supply runs short, they will not give us a chance to import them,” he said.
Regardless of what the WHO or other countries like the U.S. or China say, Korea should take care of its necessity, Kim emphasized. Every country will have to face their respective battle against the prolonged COVID-19 outbreak, given Korea’s recent struggle with the sudden spikes of new cases in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, he added.
Kim said it was pivotal to conduct the “modeling” -- a process of making a scientific or computer model of something to show how it works or to understand it better -- of Korea-specific COVID-19.
He cited the example of the U.K., which had encouraged healthy people to stay home at the initial stage of the outbreak but later imposed stronger measures based on modelling it conducted recently. Likewise, Korea needs to identify the current situation accurately and prepare efficiently, he said.
“Compared to Italy, Korea has many hospital beds per person and better healthcare. Korean people are good at wearing masks and social distancing. That is why we contain it this much,” Kim said. “We have to apply these characteristics to conduct our COVID-19 modelling.”
So far, Korea has been able to withstand the outbreaks with the efforts of the public, quarantine officials, and medical workers. Still, they have exhausted as COVID-19 prolonged for more than two months, Kim said.
Long-term COVID-19 modelling should reflect such issues, and other projections such as how many patients and deaths will occur, and how much we need medical resources such as intensive care units and ventilators, he added.
‘COVID-19 will not end shortly, could prolong for 2 years’
Lee Wang-jun, the leader of the Working Group of the Korean Hospital Association's COVID-19 Emergency Response Headquarter and chairman of Myongji Hospital, also said the country needed a long-term measure to fight COVID-19, given that community-acquired infections were gradually rising nationwide, setting aside Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province.
“We hope that this upward trend could peak in late March or early April and recede later on. Even if we get a respite in late April, the outbreak is likely to continue throughout this year and maybe into next year, or a year after that,” Lee said.
Lee predicted that the influx of the pandemic would become a new source of infections, and sporadic cluster infections will continue. Even if a treatment is developed, it will mainly treat pneumonia in severe patients, he noted.
“It is difficult to expect a drug like Tamiflu, and the vaccine development seems to be also challenging,” he added.
Lee warned that repeated spreads of COVID-19 could occur when the following conditions were met: a global pandemic, an explosive rise of COVID-19 patients in the U.S. and Europe, the inefficiency of the healthcare system of the U.S., the winter in the southern hemisphere, and the possibility of COVID-19 becoming an endemic disease in Africa.
Although the next two weeks are crucial to prevent a further spread of COVID-19, people should not expect that temporary social distancing would end the pandemic early and return to normal, Lee warned.
“You should not make a strategy with an expectation for an end. We can’t go back to normal. We should prepare for the new normal of an infectious disease era,” he emphasized.
Lee called for reorganizing the Korean healthcare system to prepare for a long-term battle against the virus.
“The healthcare system should be changed to fight a sustainable battle, not an emergency maneuvering battle,” he said.
Lee proposed dividing the emergency medical capacity all focused on COVID-19 containment into two – a stable medical system to respond to the virus infection and a normal patient care system.
“The government should reorganize the regional control towers so that the government-led disease control leadership does not create conflict with the on-site medical workers,” he said.
Korean society needs a new philosophy and a creative disease control strategy for a long-term fight. People should know that the medical workers’ dedication and citizens’ participation are most important to efficiently choose and focus resources and workforce, and distribute and manage them, Lee added.
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