South Korea's government says it is in a critical struggle to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus from the disease's epicenter in Daegu. It has given itself four weeks to stabilize the situation in the city of 2.5 million, some 150 miles southeast of the capital, Seoul.
"If authorities fail to contain the spread of the COVID-19 in Daegu, there is a high possibility that COVID-19 could spread nationwide," Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters on Monday.
Most of South Korea's 833 cases, as of Monday, are in Daegu. And most are connected to an obscure religious group called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
Case numbers doubled for several days in a row last week. The virus spread to every major city and province in the country. As a result, the government on Sunday raised the country's virus alert level to red, its highest, for the first time since 2009. This gave authorities the power to shut down schools and restrict flights in and out of the country. It also advised all citizens showing symptoms of respiratory ailments or fever to stay away from work and school and to self-quarantine.
It's not clear how many South Koreans will heed that advice. And it's highly unlikely that the government could impose draconian restrictions, locking down entire cities as in the case of China, says Kim Woo-joo, a doctor in the department of infectious disease at Korea University's Guro Hospital in Seoul.
"South Korea is a liberal democracy with the freedom of movement," he says. Besides, he says, "any lockdown now would already be too late, since Daegu is a transport hub through which many people have already passed."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning against travel to South Korea because of the continued spread of the coronavirus worldwide.
On Monday, the CDC issued a "level 3" advisory, which warns to "avoid nonessential travel" to the East Asian country. The federal agency issued a similar level 3 warning for travel to China Saturday due to "widespread community transmission," excluding Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.
Similarly, the U.S. State Department issued a level 2 travel advisory ("exercise increased caution") Saturday for South Korea over the coronavirus outbreak.
Earlier this month, the State Department issued a level 4 travel advisory ("do not travel") – its most severe warning – for all of China.
According to Johns Hopkins data, South Korea has 893 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus as of Monday evening, second only to 77,658 cases in Mainland China, where the first cases of the infection were identified.
More than 2,663 people have died due to the virus — most in the Hubei province of mainland China. Eight people have died in South Korea.
The CDC advises those who must travel to South Korea to stay away from sick people, wash their hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer with 60% to 95% alcohol and avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth.
The CDC recommends anyone who spent time in South Korea in the last two weeks and is now feeling sick with a fever, cough or has difficulty breathing — all symptoms of coronavirus — seek medical attention; cover mouth and nose with tissue or a sleeve when coughing or sneezing; and not travel, among other precautions.
Researchers analyzed data from over 72,000 confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19 and found that the novel coronavirus is more contagious than the related viruses which cause SARS and MERS.
While COVID-19 spreads more easily, it has not yet proven to be as deadly as its related coronavirus strands. Of the 44,672 confirmed cases examined, the Chinese CDC said there were 1,023 deaths, which is a mortality rate of 2.3 percent. The 2003 SARS outbreak had a mortality rate of 14 to 15 percent, while MERS had a case fatality of 35 percent, according to the World Health Organization.
Citing the recent uptick of outbreaks in countries like Iran, Italy and South Korea, Messonnier said health officials realize that once the virus hits, it moves “quite rapidly.”
“As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder,” Messonnier said.
Currently, the U.S. has 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and an additional 39 residents were infected with the virus while on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. The CDC previously said those cases would be counted separately from the national tally.
COVID-19 is known to spread mainly from person-to-person contact through sneezing and coughing, but a separate study published in The Journal of Hospital Infection found that the virus may be able to live on surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to nine days.
Increased temperatures of 30 or 40 degrees Celsius were found to reduce the duration of how long the virus persisted. Household cleaning products such as bleach were found to be effective at killing the virus on surfaces within a minute, according to the study.