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As Coronavirus Infections Slow, South Korea Plans for Life After Social Distancing

As Coronavirus Infections Slow, South Korea Plans for Life After Social Distancing
March 28
10:30 2020

By Timothy W. Martin and Andrew Jeong

SEOUL—South Korea, enjoying a slowdown in new coronavirus infections, is contemplating life after social distancing.

Calling them “social-prevention measures,” Seoul officials are preparing new guidelines to kick-start the lengthy return to normalcy as early as next month. Students might be allowed to return to school with zigzag seating arrangements in classrooms and temperature checks, restaurants might have to install screens to separate diners before reopening, and workers could be allowed to shuffle to offices.

A newly formed group of medical experts, government officials and civic groups are tasked with creating guidelines that “harmonize” everyday life with the threat from the coronavirus pandemic, a South Korean health official said this week. The recommendations are expected over the next week.

South Korea’s next steps will be closely watched, as the country was the first to suffer the worst major coronavirus outbreak outside China. But now, the rate of infection has moderated, giving hope that aggressive state countermeasures implemented since mid-February can be relaxed.

The national shut-in strategy can’t work long-term, especially as the weather warms, spring flowers bloom and new infections slow, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told foreign media on Friday.

“I don’t think people can stay in that tense state for a long period of time,” Mr. Chung said. “If the numbers improve, that could lead to complacency of all people, so we are concerned.”

Seoul officials aim to soften some emergency measures after April 5, when state-recommended suspensions at churches, gyms and entertainment venues are scheduled to end. The delayed school year is set to begin the next day, which would be about six weeks after the government raised its virus-alert system to the highest level.

With about 9,300 coronavirus cases so far, South Korea’s new infections have been rising by about 100 a day, down sharply from more than 900 infections a day during the peak. There have been no fresh infections in a handful of large cities and provinces in recent days, and Mr. Chung said Friday the government would evaluate changing its social-distancing guidance by examining the geographic distribution of new cases.

This could affect the reopening of schools, he added. “Can we do it for all schools or shall we do it in a partial fashion?” Mr. Chung said. “We are contemplating many different scenarios.”

South Korea, which has tightened restrictions on inbound travelers, is urging people to adhere to the government’s guidelines until April 5. But officials are hoping to implement “sustainable” social distancing in coming weeks to help reinvigorate commerce.

“People are getting tired and there are many obstacles to economic activities,” a South Korean health official said Thursday.

Some health experts caution that any softening of social-distancing measures would leave South Korea vulnerable, given the emergence of infection clusters and a rise in imported cases from the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. Undiagnosed individuals who aren’t showing symptoms could also be spreading the virus, they said.

A return to regular life will take much longer than a few weeks, so South Korea needs to strike a balance between economic health and safety, said Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease expert at Korea University’s Guro hospital in Seoul.

“It’s a bit awkward but prevention is more important than visuals at this point,” Dr. Kim said, referring to unconventional seating arrangements in public spaces.

But others say the aggressive social-distancing measures have a shelf life, given that a vaccine may not be developed for another year and citizens remain at risk of being infected no matter the strategy.

“Our control measures are very expensive socially and economically,” said Oh Myoung-don, an internal medicine professor at Seoul National University. “It’s time to consider an exit strategy now.”

South Korea slowed the spread of the virus by instituting widespread testing, which enabled officials to more accurately project and prepare quarantine measures. The move also meant that officials could deploy extra health professionals and equipment to places where they were most needed. Just three weeks ago, the country had the highest number of cases apart from China. Now it’s behind nine countries including the U.S.Source: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering

The country’s economy, meanwhile, hasn’t fared as well. Sales at South Korea’s duty-free stores dropped by nearly half in February from the previous month, a trade group said.

South Korea’s airlines are in “grave and immediate danger” of insolvency and require significant government assistance, global trade group International Air Transport Association told South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Despite the economic pressures, the current isolation-heavy system should remain in place, said Eom Joong-sik, an infectious-disease professor at South Korea’s Gachon University.

“The government needs to continue to pursue early detection and strengthen measures to monitor people coming in from other countries,” Dr. Eom said. “If we don’t practice physical distancing, cluster infections could lead to another surge in cases.”

Source of wall street

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