South Korea currently has one of the highest number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases outside China, with 7,478 confirmed infections and 54 deaths as of Monday, March 9 according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
Schools were raucous and crowded with students at this time last year but now, they are empty because the start of the new semester was postponed from March 2 to 23 as a precaution against the virus. A number of artists, including the band BTS, have also canceled their events and concerts. Libraries and museums will be closed until March 22.
The South Korean government is now under scrutiny for failing to contain the coronavirus throughout the country.
There are now 166 fully recovered patients in South Korea. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the country’s coronavirus fatality rate was at around 0.6 - 0.7 percent as of Monday, March 9, lower than the global rate of 3.4 percent. That’s also much lower than the average fatality rate of MERS (34 percent) and SARS (10 percent).
No one can attest to the severity of the situation better than those fighting the outbreak in the frontlines, like Dr. Lee Wang-jun. Lee is the chairman of the Myongji Hospital in South Korea and leads the Korean Hospital Association’s new Coronavirus Emergency Response Headquarters.
The Myongji Hospital has nine state-designated negative pressure rooms (NPRs), used to contain airborne contaminants, that are now dedicated to treating coronavirus patients. At the moment, the hospital has nine patients infected with the coronavirus. It has also discharged six patients who have fully recovered.
VICE spoke to Lee about how his hospital is managing the rising coronavirus cases, what he has discovered in the fight, and what learnings he can share with other countries.
VICE: What is key in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak?
Lee Wang-jun: I would say that the key is not a treatment, per se, but the access to medical facilities. It’s also important for the government and medical authorities to manage the outbreak according to previous data. The coronavirus is not a mortal disease and the fatality rate is relatively lower than other epidemics, although it is spreading like wildfire.
What are the symptoms of the coronavirus? What does it feel like to have it?
The symptoms can’t be distinguished from a general cold or influenza unless patients are older or have underlying illnesses. Coronavirus symptoms include a mild fever and dry cough. Based on our observations, coronavirus patients’ body temperature don’t usually go up to 39 degrees. Another definite evidence of the virus are ground-glass opacities (white multifocal circles) in the lungs, which are seen in CT scan results.
Patient 17, one of our patients who have been released, said that the virus did not feel as serious as he expected. It was not easy, but it was just like a severe influenza, not a serious illness, especially if you were treated right away. Although he went through the virus’ moderate phase when he came to us, he felt that the symptoms were quite tolerable.
How do you cure patients when they are hospitalised?
It depends on the patient since people are under different phases of the virus. There were patients who came in the recovery phase. For those patients, what we do is provide meals and monitoring. That was the case for Patient 28, a Chinese national. She was in the recovery period and was only marginally positive for the virus, so we didn’t do many things for her.
Patient 17 was in the moderate phase when he came to us. Before being hospitalised, he had thought that it was just influenza. He went to the hospital after being told that a Malaysian national he met during a business trip to Singapore was confirmed to have the virus. We provided him with minimal treatment, giving him a fever reducer after checking his body and blood. We didn’t need to use antiviral agents on him.
For Patient 3, who had stayed with us from the beginning to the end of his infection, we used antibiotics and Kaletra, a combination of two anti-HIV drugs, until he was released from the hospital after a CT came out clear. His case shows the whole treatment process for the virus; we have reported it to the Journal of Korean Medical Science (JKMS).
What have you learned from leading coronavirus treatments? Any advice for people outside South Korea?
What I learned is that socio-psychological programs are just as important as medical ones. Patients with the virus are in quarantine for several weeks, so they feel isolated. Some people have compared it to the film Oldboy, because the main character is confined in a room for 15 years.
For those having a hard time with the isolation, we provide bedside consultations and art programs such as bedside musical concerts, wherein we play concerts through video calls. We treat patients psychologically and physically with daily consultations, tranquillisers, and sleeping pills, and provide special meals for those sick of eating hospital food.
I also found that studying existing data can help. For now, China’s data is the most important because they have information based on a huge number of patients. China has been dealing with the virus for more than two months, a month ahead of South Korea. The WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 report shows that South Korea’s experience almost parallels China’s, which means we can use their data to inform our decisions.
I believe that South Korea’s data will also be very important for other countries soon. Due to their large number of patients, China does not screen and do real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) checks for everyone, even though this is widely done to diagnose HIV and influenza. South Korea, however, does this to all cases. While China’s data is bigger, Korea’s is more sophisticated. There will soon be meaningful data from Korea, which can be helpful for other countries dealing with the virus.
This conversation has been edited/condensed for brevity and clarity.
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