SEOUL, South Korea (WPRI) — A Brown University graduate living in South Korea is warning Americans not to get away from social distancing and other guidelines once the country reaches its peak in COVID-19 cases.
Martin Silva pursued an Education Studies major and graduated from Brown in 2010. For the last seven years, he’s lived in Seoul and worked as a teacher.
Silva tells Eyewitness News that in South Korea, coronavirus became of concern in late December 2019 to early January 2020 and he has been in quarantine for about five weeks. He adds he has not been going outside unless absolutely necessary, like for groceries.
“I distinctly remember people not going out and panic shopping,” Silva said. “Also, not hoarding things like toilet paper. That’s still something that I really don’t quite understand.”
According to a March 30 report from CBS News, the rate of cases in South Korea peaked late February, with less than 10,000 cases, and fewer than 160 deaths. The report also adds South Korea has not had a shortage of beds, ventilators, or personal protective equipment, or PPE.
CBS News reports 121 healthcare workers in South Korea have been sick, a vast comparison to the more than 200 in Boston alone.
In 2015, South Korea saw the largest outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outside of the Middle East. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports by the end of the outbreak, 186 laboratory-confirmed cases (185 in the Republic of Korea and 1 in China) and 38 deaths had been recorded.
CBS News spoke with a local doctor, who attributes the response to the MERS epidemic to be able to guide future planning, like for COVID-19.
CBS News also found South Korea and the United States reported their first coronavirus cases, respectively, on January 20 this year. But by March 4, South Korea tested 136,707 people while the U.S. tested fewer than 1,000. By March 12, South Korea tested 234,998 people while the U.S. tested 10,058.
Silva says he believes the government has been on top of testing and providing treatment for those who have tested positive for COVID-19. He acknowledged the early set up of drive-through test facilities and robust contact-tracing for people who tested positive.
“They were making that information available on a website created to track where exactly these cases of infection were exactly at in the city, and where those people had traveled to,” Silva said. “You could see how far away someone was from where you’re at presently who had tested positive for coronavirus.”
He adds there is a notification system, telling residents district by district about cases where they live, if the president would be making an announcement or just putting out general reminders to wash your hands.
Silva also says the republic’s public healthcare system is different from the U.S. where people pay big walk-in fees at emergency rooms.
“If I had cold symptoms and maybe I was worried that I had the flu, I could go to the emergency room and I could go to the hospital and see a doctor almost right away and be in and out within a couple of hours and with a prescription in my hand, and not have to worry about having to pay hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for a simple visit with the doctor,” Silva said.
One thing Silva says he has noticed since the so-called “flattening of the curve,” is despite fewer cases, he thinks people are getting “too comfortable.” He says there have been small cluster cases, he believes due to people letting down their guard when going back to daily activities.
He says restaurants and bars are open, but gyms, churches, schools, and other places where a lot of people could gather in tight quarters are still closed down. He noted the government warned about going out to public parks, especially as cherry blossom season nears.
Silva says overall, he feels safe in South Korea right now.
“If I were to get sick, then I do feel like I would have the resources available to me to not only get tested, but if I were to test positive for it, that I would be able to go to the hospital, get the medicine that I need, and then recover at home and self-quarantine,” Silva said. He says he would not feel as confident going back out in public and to work if he were in the U.S.
Silva says from what he’s observed, he feels the way South Korea and the U.S. responded all comes down to timing.
“I really do feel like if America had acted sooner, and if the administration in place had really had acted much, much more quickly and taken this much more seriously at a sooner date, then a lot of the mass hysteria and sort of thinness of resources available, in terms of healthcare, could at least have been mitigated to some extent,” Silva added.