Was South Korea’s COVID success really attributable to testing?

Testing — which wasn’t as “mass” as headlined — is only part of the story. 

It’s indisputable that South Korea has done a masterful job attacking COVID-19.


How did they do it?

Practically all of the punditry has centered on SoKo’s fast-to-market and aggressive testing procedures.

For example, Time says: “Countries (such as Korea) that have flattened the curve made testing widely and freely available, using innovative approaches like mass drive-thru test centers.”

Forbes said: “South Korea’s cumulative curve has indeed flattened somewhat. That’s primarily due to the government moving swiftly to ensure free and widespread public testing for COVID-19.

The implication: If the US just had more test kits and pop-up testing stations, we’d be able to get this outbreak under control pronto.

But, there’s way more to the story  … SoKo also took strong enforcement actions based on the test results. 

Here’s the story….


First question: Did SoKo really do “mass testing”?

I guess that depends on your definition of “mass”.

Multiple sources seem to agree that roughly 250,000 Koreans have been tested.

South Korea has a population of about 50 million.

That works out to about .5% of the Korean population being tested … that’s 1/2 of 1 percent … about 1 in every 200 people.

For reference, grossing up at that rate in the US  would require 1.5 million tests … 750,000 if only people over 18 are tested.

Bottom line: For the most part, SoKo was only testing symptomatic people to confirm their infection …. they weren’t doing broadscale testing to snag the asymptomatic “hidden carriers”.


My view: Testing is only useful if it leads to actionable steps.

And, as I’ve observed a few times in prior posts, doctors generally agree that the treatment protocol for a symptomatic person is the same whether they test positive or negative to COVID.

So, if SoKo is only testing 1/2% of the population … and, only  symptomatics are being tested, what is the secret sauce?

Answer: Aggressive contact tracing and strict quarantine enforcement.

More specifically…

According to Science — the publication of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science:

In South Korea, high-risk patients with underlying illnesses get priority for hospitalization.

Those with moderate symptoms are sent to repurposed corporate training facilities and spaces provided by public institutions, where they get basic medical support and observation.

Those who recover and test negative twice are released.

Here’s where thing’s get interesting:

The Korean government has authority to collect mobile phone, credit card, and other data from those who test positive to reconstruct their recent whereabouts.

Close contacts are identified and ordered to self-quarantine for 2 weeks.

A local monitoring team calls twice daily to make sure the quarantined stay put and to ask about symptoms.

Quarantine violators face up to 3 million won ($2500) fines. If a recent bill becomes law, the fine will go up to 10 million won and as much as a year in jail.

For some reason, the aggressive contact tracking and enforced quarantine parts of the SoKo program don’t get much press coverage.



Important post script

Also reported in Science: it’s “unclear” whether the (South Korean) success will hold.

New case numbers are declined largely because of a herculean effort to investigate a massive cluster of more than 5000 cases — 60% of the nation’s total — linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive, messianic megachurch, is winding down.

We have not looked hard in other parts of Korea,” says Oh Myoung-Don, an infectious disease specialist at Seoul National University.

Bringing that point home, there’s an interesting parallel…

Seattle’s spread is traceable to a single nursing home that has evidenced more than 2 dozen fatalities … NY’s spread traces to a Jewish day school in the Bronx.

And currently, more than half of the U.S. cases come from three states: New York, Washington and California


Follow on Twitter @KenHoma

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2 Responses to “Was South Korea’s COVID success really attributable to testing?”

  1. Help Wanted: Vice President of Contact Tracing & Testing | The Homa Files Says:

    […] For details, see Was South Korea’s COVID success really attributable to testing? […]

  2. Shocker: NYC contact tracing program off to a “slow start” | The Homa Files Says:

    […] See our prior post: Was South Korea’s COVID success really attributable to testing? […]

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