Digital Tracking and Robust Testing: How Germany and South Korea Flattened the Curve

As many states in the U.S. get ready to reopen, health officials are urging extreme caution. A second wave of the virus could easily wreak havoc on numerous states in the weeks and months ahead if these areas reopen too quickly. With millions out of work, state governors and local officials are anxious to get their economies up and running again, but at what cost?

Outside of the U.S., several countries are looking to reopen as well, including Germany and South Korea, both of which have been praised for their ability to limit the spread of the virus. Germany now sees around 63 new cases a day, compared to over 400 back in mid-March. The same goes for South Korea. The country now has around 15 to 30 new cases a day, instead of over 800 back in March.

So, what did these countries do differently than the U.S. and what can we learn from them as we begin to reopen?

Free Drive-Thru Testing for All

South Korea has lost just 234 people to the virus, compared to the U.S. death toll of over 80,000. South Korea is just one seventh the size of the U.S., but the country was able to virtually eradicate the virus using free drive-through testing. Back in March, the country was testing anywhere between 12,000 and 20,000 people a day.

Health officials set up hundreds of makeshift testing clinics in parking lots and retail centers across the country. Citizens could then drive up and get tested in just a few minutes. The results were then sent to their smartphones within 24 hours.

The country also started using digital surveillance to track the movements of its citizens. GPS data helped fast-track the country’s contact tracing program. Officials would urge those who tested positive to quarantine as well as anyone else they may have encountered over the past couple weeks.

The individual’s name was kept confidential. Contact tracers may see something like, “Patient #1124 went to the café to meet patient #1421. They sat for two hours. Patient #1124 then had dinner at a nearby restaurant. Both facilities are considered safe for public occupancy, thus patient #1124 is considered low risk for contracting the virus.”

In South Korea, nearly everyone has a smartphone. The country is virtually cashless. People use their phones for just about everything. These tracking methods have raised privacy concerns from the international community, but not in South Korea. A survey at the time reveals that 89.1% of the public supported the government’s tracking practices.

Medical Students to the Rescue

Germany has been adamant about testing since the first case of the virus appeared in late January. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country’s main health advisory board, has been setting up hundreds of testing and contact tracing sites across the country. However, Germany didn’t have enough providers on staff to get these programs off the ground. At the time, nurses and doctors were busy helping patients.

RKI eventually brought on hundreds of “containment scouts” to start ramping up the country’s testing capacity. These scouts were mostly made up of medical students. With classes on hold, these aspiring professionals were more than happy to go where they were needed most.

Federalism with Clear Checks and Balances

Germany is made up of 16 individual states. Unlike the U.S., the country, including all 16 states, quickly shut down all aspects of public life in mid-March just as the virus was starting to spread. Now that the country is starting to reopen two months later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is letting states decide when they should reopen. The U.S. has adopted a similar system as individual states set their own guidelines.

On May 6th, all 16 states in Germany agreed to ease the lockdown, but not without some clear guidelines. Every state must reinstate restrictions if the number of new cases rises above 50 per 100,000 inhabitants across seven days in an area.

The U.S. doesn’t have the same checks and balances in place if a second wave of the virus should occur. The White House came out with a clear set of guidelines for states on how to reopen safely. Every state should see a decline in new cases for at least 14 days before starting to reopen, but these guidelines aren’t enforceable by law. Some U.S. states are quickly loosening their restrictions, while others are taking a more measured approach. The U.S. now has a mixed bag of containment policies. As citizens move across state lines, so will the virus.

To counter this all-over approach to reopening, several East and West Coast U.S. states have signed pledges to unify their plans to reopen. In lieu of a national strategy, we now have California, Oregon, and Washington state in the West Coast Pact; and New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Delaware forming the East Coast Pact. These states plan to reopen as a group, so local citizens don’t receive conflicting information.

While many containment strategies may not be possible in the U.S., they show us what is needed to contain the virus. Most Americans now believe that both Germany and South Korea have done a better job of containing the virus than the U.S. We are all anxious to go back to public life, but only if we know that it’s safe to do so.

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