Time to reinforce Covid-19 tracing
The author is a professor of the Preventive Medicine Department, Seoul National University.
Daily new cases of Covid-19 again exceeded 2,000 last week. When it will peak out remains uncertain. The time has come for the Moon Jae-in administration to change its strategy to battle the virus under the new environment. It can hardly contain the surging growth in new infections with current loopholes in the quarantine system.
Nevertheless, the government sticks to its play-it-by-ear approach, extending the de facto Level 4 social distancing which has lost its effect due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant every two weeks without paying any heed to fundamental problems. Without a fix to the unscientific quarantine measure that only vexes the people, the county’s battle with Covid-19 cannot end. At this rate, the consequences on society could be catastrophic.
The infection rate of the Delta variant among unvaccinated people has reached a whopping 85 percent. The greater the infection rate, the higher risk of grave illness or deaths. Moreover, intensive care beds are running out fast in hospitals. Due to a spike in patients over a short period time, hospital capacity is falling short. Urgent measures are in demand.
Among the new cases, the infection rate of those in self-quarantine after contact with positive-tested people hovers below 40 percent. In other words, more than 60 percent of the new cases are found in the group of unidentifiable or untraceable people. The spread worsens when infections increasingly become untraceable.
From an empirical study on the cases of last 10 months, it can be projected that when the infection rate within reported cases falls as low as 30 percent, daily new cases could reach up to 7,000. If the rate is lifted to 70 percent, the daily count could drop to 300. To control the spread, quarantine capabilities should be reinforced to tighten the watch and control network.
The Korean quarantine system which shone for a while thanks to its fast tracing, testing and treatment in the early stages of the outbreak has lost much of its effectiveness. Quarantine manpower must be beefed up to re-strengthen contact tracing. As the staff at public health clinics are the first to handle infected people, they should be more than doubled.
Current quarantine staffers have been unchanged since the first half of the year following the winter wave when daily cases fell to around 400. Since daily cases have surged to more or less 2,000, quarantine manpower should have increased five times the current level to effectively respond to the worsening situation.
Korea’s excelling ICT needs to be fully utilized to track down those who have had contact with people infected with Covid-19 and have them tested fast. It usually takes two to three days to process the visitors to coffee shops, restaurants and other multi-use facilities through QR codes or 080-phone identification as well as clinical tests. If a digital solution app is developed based on smartphone records, clinics and other testing facilities it can alert people faster than before and have them tested quicker. When Korea’s connectivity and technology are fully used, the response speed can be shortened by two to three days.
The social distancing guidelines that have already lost effectiveness only help harden the lives of the self-employed and fatigue the people. Instead of simply extending distancing rules over and over, health authorities must overhaul their quarantine policy.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.