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‘I had to skip meals to examine travelers,’ says a doctor at Incheon airportIncheon airport reports no Covid-19 case among 76,800 employees
  • By Song Soo-youn
  • Published 2020.05.26 11:48
  • Updated 2020.05.26 11:48
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Incheon International Airport is at the frontline in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the global spread of the virus pushed down new arrivals significantly, confirmed cases from overseas are still being reported. The nation’s main international airport has to remain vigilant as long as viral infections are ongoing worldwide.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), the nation had 11,206 confirmed cases as of midnight Sunday, and 10.8 percent of them, or 1,215, were imported infections. On Monday, three out of 16 daily new cases were from overseas.

Kim Dong-young, a public health doctor who has been working as a quarantine officer at the Incheon airport, shares the Incheon International Airport’s quarantine experiences during a YouTube show “Corona Fighters Live” on Friday by K-Healthlog, a channel operated by The Korean Doctors’ Weekly.

Kim Dong-young is a public health doctor who has been working as a quarantine officer at the Incheon airport since April 2019. In Korea, licensed male physicians can serve as public health doctors instead of joining the military.

Kim said the quarantine atmosphere at the airport was as intense as the one in the initial outbreak of Covid-19, although the airport was quieter than ever because of reduced travelers.

At a YouTube show “Corona Fighters Live” on Friday by K-Healthlog, a channel operated by The Korean Doctors’ Weekly, Kim described himself as a soldier at the forefront of a battle. “I’m working with a thought that I will try my best to prevent the spread of imported cases,” he said.

According to Kim, the airport began to receive outside support of healthcare workers after the authorities expanded quarantine management to people entering from the entire region of China.

Not only the military but the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the National Health Insurance Service, the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service, and national hospitals dispatched healthcare professionals to the airport’s quarantine office.

Travelers with respiratory symptoms receive a risk assessment from a public health doctor or a military doctor at an isolated examination room within the arrival hall and get tested for Covid-19 at an isolated negative pressure facility. Then, they wait for the result in a room. If Covid-19 is confirmed, the patient is moved to a medical institution cited in the address card or a non-medical treatment center. The Incheon airport’s quarantine office has been conducting Covid-19 diagnostic tests since February.

Critics once said too many people with related symptoms made it difficult to separate their movements from asymptomatic ones.

However, the airport has addressed the overcrowding issue, Kim said. “The Incheon International Airport Corp. utilized empty rooms in the arrival hall and installed temporary waiting rooms in spaces created with reduced flights,” he said.

Kim recalled a moment of panic in January. It was when the number of confirmed cases was spiking, and travelers from China rushed to enter Korea. At the time, the airport was short of medical staff to examine people separately.

The public health doctor said he had no time to eat because he was too busy with examining selected travelers.

There were, of course, times when Kim found the job rewarding because the airport’s quarantine office discovered the first imported case and prevented it from spreading.

“The quarantine office confirmed the first imported case of Covid-19, which enabled local communities to respond to the outbreak actively,” Kim said. “It was also worthwhile to prevent imported cases by conducting inspections on risk groups such as construction workers from Southwest Asia and the Middle East in cooperation with epidemiological inspectors at the quarantine office.”

Increased workforce and decreased arrivals did not mean Kim could work less.

As the authorities widened the scope of Covid-19 testing, compared to the past outbreak of infectious diseases such as MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), the intensity of the work got stronger despite a fewer number of arrivals, he noted.

Kim said the quarantine office was still short of human resources.

According to Kim, the Incheon airport used to have about 100,000 arrivals daily, with 24 quarantine officers and one to three epidemiologists or public health doctors.

Now, with the Ministry of Defense's support, about 40 to 50 workers are dispatched to the quarantine daily, and 40 to 50 percent of them are from outside, he said.

Under such circumstances, the airport has prevented infections thoroughly. The airport is a workplace for over 76,800 employees, but none of them has contracted Covid-19.

Kim said the airport separated moving routes of people under quarantine from others. The restrooms for those who get Covid-19 tests were isolated from those for general airport staff. The airport required those with symptoms to wear a mask and even a pair of gloves, if necessary.

“As resident employees were wearing masks and gloves, we could reduce the infection risk. We always sanitize the arrival hall and the airport to lower the possibility of contamination,” Kim added.


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