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Coronavirus

South Korea and Germany blindsided by COVID-19 wave

Reduced vigilance opens door to infections despite mass testing and tracking

A medical worker wearing protective gear speaks as people wait in line at a coronavirus testing center in Seoul on Dec. 12.   © AP

SEOUL/BERLIN -- South Korea and Germany, two countries once hailed for success in controlling the coronavirus pandemic, face a record wave of infections as public vigilance slips.

South Korea on Saturday exceeded 1,000 new infections in a day for the first time. The country's daily case count hovered around 100 in early November, but began climbing rapidly at midmonth. Chilly weather arrived in late November, and poor indoor ventilation due to the cold undermined a key plank in controlling the spread of the virus: avoiding closed spaces.

The government eased social distancing restrictions in October. Some experts blame the rise in cases on the relaxed public attitude and the growth in social activities resulting from the policy change.

South Korea looks to enhance current prevention measures, but experts say the focus should be on upgrading the country's health care infrastructure.

The country quickly countered the first coronavirus wave in the spring with its "K-quarantine" prevention model, centered on diagnostic testing and isolating infected individuals along with those who had close contact with such patients.

A sophisticated contact tracing regime supports K-quarantine: Restaurants keep track of customers through smartphone QR codes or guest lists and share the data with authorities.

But the route of transmission has been unclear in a growing number of cases during recent weeks. Though new infections declined to the 700s on Sunday, an explosion into the thousands through the end of December is feared.

On Monday, South Korea made diagnostic testing free to everyone in an attempt to keep the current disease prevention model sustainable. People previously paid a fee for polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests unless asked to undergo the check by the government.

"The methods of finding asymptomatic patients through epidemiological surveys are approaching their limit," said Paik Soon-young, professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Korea's school of medicine.

"Epidemiological surveys should concentrate on areas in which group infections could arise, and focus on treatments that prevent patients with severe symptoms from dying," Paik added.

Germany also had once kept the lid on infections through mass testing and its expansive health care infrastructure. But the European country announced tighter restrictions on Sunday, including closures of shops and schools.

Germany's daily case count hovers around 30,000, with over 500 related deaths in a single day. Critically ill patients exceed 4,500, a 60% gain from spring's peak of 2,850.

Berlin's missteps date to early November, when it balked at imposing a tougher shutdown. France and other European nations already had instituted lockdowns. But Germany, which had relatively fewer cases, settled for closing eateries and entertainment venues.

When December rolled around, more people went out shopping or drinking outdoors.

Germany initially planned to allow a nearly normal Christmas, but it hard to deny that Chancellor Angela Merkel misread the declining vigilance against COVID-19. Now officials will impose a lockdown starting Wednesday and lasting through at least Jan. 10.

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