It was a Friday when Kim Gyung-sook started to feel a little off.
She had had a dose of Pfizer vaccine two weeks before, but decided to be careful and get a COVID-19 test.
“I had not been near anyone who tested positive, but I just did not feel well,” she told ABC.
Saturday hit reality. The test came back positive. She had done the right thing by being tested, but the confirmation meant a major upheaval in her life.
She was ordered to isolate in her apartment away from her family until she could be moved to a state-run facility.
In South Korea, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is taken from their home. If they are severely affected, they are sent to the hospital.
But if they just have mild or no symptoms, like Mrs. Kim, they are led to what the government calls treatment facilities for housing.
Mrs. Kim packed a small collection of belongings for the stay: clothes, toiletries, and her laptop. She was picked up by a state minibus, with the driver separated from her and the other positive passengers.
She was driven for about an hour and a half to a complex that normally functions as a youth education facility. It had been recycled to house COVID-19 patients.
Although she had been taken to the facility as soon as there was free space, it appears that it was not fast enough. Her two young daughters both tested positive for the disease two days later. Her husband was negative.
Her daughters were sent to the same facility.
“First, I had shared a room with another patient. But when my two daughters arrived, we moved into what they call the family room,” Kim said.
The family room is pretty spartan. It’s just a room with a separate bathroom. It is usually used as a dressing room, so closets store walls.
While in the facility, Kim and her two daughters had to enter health records twice daily in a specially designed app.
Using equipment provided to them, patients upload their temperatures, blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen saturation. The data is checked by medical personnel who are on site if anyone’s condition worsens.
It’s a pretty bland existence. They receive three meals a day and snacks. There is also good quality wifi, which meant the girls could continue to attend class remotely during their stay. The full cost is covered by the government.
“This facility feels so stuffy and frustrating, but I think it’s the best choice for the government,” Kim said.
South Korea burned by previous eruptions
South Korea was one of the first countries to feel the power of the pandemic after the virus was first discovered in China in 2019.
The country of about 50 million people had experienced trauma from dealing with an outbreak of a coronavirus.
In 2015, the highly dangerous Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) entered the country, killing 38 people. Korean health professionals knew the risk of the new virus circulating.
Following a major COVID-19 outbreak in the central town of Daegu in connection with an outlying Christian church, authorities called early to send all positive cases to the hospital to be isolated in an attempt to reduce the risk of transmission.
But the public health system was “overwhelmed” and failed, according to Lee Hoon song, from Yonsei University.
To remove the pressure from the hospital system, the government started reusing various facilities to house them with mild or no symptoms. University dormitories, hotels and educational facilities were reconfigured for the purpose.
Dr. Lee said this made it easier to ensure that people complied with quarantine orders than it would be if they had been in their own home.
“[In government-run facilities] they can be monitored very closely. “So if there are any serious symptoms that develop, they can be transported to the hospital pretty quickly,” he said.
South Korea has not enforced extensive lockdowns like many parts of Australia. Instead, there are restrictions on certain trade and high compliance with mandates that wear masks.
More than 2,000 new cases are currently registered every day. But at that level of transmission, Dr. Lee that the insulation system begins to feel the load.
The Australian setup
Australia has prided itself on its strict quarantine standards for returning international travelers, including those who test negative and have been double-vaccinated.
But that’s a different story for positive things in society. In most cases, you will be asked to quarantine at home.
Epidemiologist Alexandra Martiniuk of the University of Sydney says quarantine away from home is the “gold standard” in slowing down transmission, while home quarantine has been associated with a high degree of family transmission.
“I know of families where it goes from one person to the next … and they all end up being quarantined for six, seven, eight weeks,” Professor Martiniuk said.
But there is now debate as to whether Australia should aim at zero transmission of COVID-19 at all.
“Some people think that when vaccinations get very, very high in an overall population, we will not quarantine or isolate positive cases because it just has to circulate,” Professor Martiniuk said.
Can Korea’s COVID quarantine model work in Australia?
Michael Toole, one of Australia’s leading public health experts, has been following the course of the disease in South Korea closely and believes that Australia could learn from it.
He is particularly keen that the ‘COVID zero’ states of Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania follow the Korean example and isolate positive cases from home.
Dr Toole says that given the reproductive rate of the Delta strain, positive cases should be isolated as soon as possible.
“The average number of people that an infected person infects if they are not vaccinated is about five. So that’s double the early strain last year,” he said.
“If someone gets infected and goes into their household, then almost every family member will get infected, and then they can affect other people.”
Dr. Toole says that although Korea’s model is logistically challenging and would require an investment of resources, it can be done – especially when the number of cases is low.
There is a great cost to taking someone from their usual home and isolating them elsewhere, both in terms of money and upheavals for the individual, but Dr. Toole believes it can still work.
“Australians have been pretty compatible with most restrictions. Of course not everyone, but most people,” he said.
“I think if they understood that it was to protect their family from becoming infected and possibly very ill, they would accept it as long as it is explained very thoroughly.”
Dr. Toole also said Australia’s focus on international travelers as a risk began to look outdated.
“The balance between the two requirements-keeping the virus out of the country, which is a little too late now and preventing further spread when we already have outbreaks-that risk-benefit balance may have changed now,” he said.
“In terms of transmission throughout society, it may make more sense to use these facilities for people we know are infected.
“And for the arriving travelers who are fully vaccinated and test negative on arrival, they could go into home quarantine.”
Australians understandably look forward to fewer restrictions as vaccination rates continue to rise, but Drs. Toole says there is still a need to keep the number of cases as low as possible.
“You have to get the numbers down. We’ve seen in other countries that have opened restrictions while still reporting a large number of cases, [they] have had spikes, such as Israel and Britain, parts of the United States and Singapore.
“They have experienced lower hospital admissions, but still, especially in England and Wales, hospitals are under a lot of pressure.”
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