Commentary: Much for us to learn from Taiwan, South Korea successes

By Joe Pamintuan

Recently, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan procured 500,000 COVID-19 test kits from South Korea, supplies that have been stored in an undisclosed location secured by state police and the National Guard. Presumably, this is a preemptive measure against reported seizures by the federal government to address severe shortages around the country.

Meanwhile, little has been made about the country that maintains a surplus of supplies. Indeed, the fact that South Korea was able to spare the test kits speaks to the success of its containment program and to the decision made early on to ramp up production of these critical tools. This allowed authorities to carry out universal screening to isolate confirmed and suspected cases, trace their contacts and focus on hot spots using information technology to track the progression of the outbreak.

The result is that South Koreans have been able to keep their economy running and carry on as usual, while the world has been in lockdown. This targeted approach could hold clues as to how to keep the virus at bay as we ease restrictions and reopen.

Therefore, importing test kits from South Korea is not enough; we need to import their know-how. South Korea’s example is instructive because of its proximity to China: Authorities had little time to react, yet swiftly mounted a mass screening campaign that at its peak was testing 20,000 individuals a day. This allowed them to isolate infected individuals and piece together hot-spot maps.

Officials also tracked cases with GPS, issuing real-time alerts to help citizens avoid close contact. Crucially, this technology-driven approach was dependent on ample testing supplies, without which it would have been impossible to identify carriers, particularly the asymptomatic ones arguably most likely to transmit the virus.

In just 20 days, authorities reined in the virus “without enforcing extreme draconian measures that restrict freedom and the movement of people,” according to a South Korean report that stressed the central role information technology played in containment.

Taiwan also contained COVID-19 without shutting down, an astonishing feat given its ties to the mainland: 1.2 million Taiwanese nationals live and work in China, and the outbreak struck as thousands were returning home for the Lunar New Year.

There, the virus was contained by deploying a “big data” approach, as described in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This included the integration of the national health care database with immigration and employment records to predict likely carriers, and the use of geolocation software to track confirmed cases and construct real-time maps of hot spots.

As we map a future beyond lockdown, we need to scrutinize those experiences for the means to keep infection rates low. Their responses are applicable because they were able to keep cases low without lockdowns, allowing millions to come into contact during the height of the outbreak.

What we glean from that may well make the difference in the coming weeks, with out-of-state quarantine orders set to expire June 1 as the tourism season hits. After all, lockdowns have not eradicated coronavirus; keeping it at bay will demand not only vigilance but ironclad solutions.

Simply put, there is little margin for error; any lapse could wipe out the hard-won gains from two months of quarantine. Indeed, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb warns that infection rates will increase in states that ease restrictions. Unfortunately, this has already happened in several states that recently opened up, like Texas and Alabama. In fact, North Carolina and Virginia posted their highest single-day infection numbers, 1,107 and 1,615, respectively just this week.

Taiwan’s and South Korea’s COVID-19 responses were recently published online, so we have a detailed road map for containing the virus, while allowing a million Delawareans – and very soon, millions of out-of-state tourists (9.2 million in 2018, to be more exact) – to freely move about.

While our situation is unique in some ways, there is likely a lot we can adapt to our own needs so we can hit the ground running, and keep going, in the months ahead.

Joe Pamintuan is a writer and educator living in Lewes.