(11:00 AM, Monday, June 22, 2020)
<Current State of COVID-19 in Seoul>
First of all, I would like to talk about how Seoul is responding to COVID-19.
As of 10 a.m. on June 22, there are 8 new confirmed cases in Seoul, most of which are from Richway, a door-to-door vendor, and a daycare center for senior citizens in Dobong-gu. Additionally, there have been new confirmed cases from another door-to-door vendor, Daezayeon Korea, to which we responded by operating a prompt response team starting last Friday. The total number of confirmed cases has been 7, 3 of which reside in Seoul. 131 individuals are undergoing complete screening and self-isolation, and so far, there have been no further confirmed cases.
The number of new confirmed cases has decreased a bit compared to the last two weeks during which there were approximately 20 new confirmed cases per day. But we cannot let our guard down, as these days are characterized by sporadic small-scale collective infections that continue to occur.
Seoul has tried its utmost to defend hospitals and daycare centers for senior citizens in particular to prevent the elderly from being infected. Nevertheless, the number of COVID-19 patients over 60 years old has witnessed a 10-fold increase, followed by the increase in serious cases and the loss of two precious lives. We are unable to track the route of infection for 10 percent of the confirmed cases.
Starting on June 2, the door-to-door vendor Richway, has continued to infect the elderly with COVID-19. The number of confirmed cases has increased to 196 (111 in Seoul) as of today. The infections caused by Richway have spread to migrant support centers, call centers, real estate agencies, churches, and private academies, now stretching beyond the boundary of the capital area.
In fact, I am not standing here today to report the general situation of COVID-19. I am heavy-hearted to deliver a special report, a significant announcement to our citizens.
For the last five months, we have fought COVID-19 together very well. The battle began in spring and the scorching summer has already arrived. We believed, indeed, that after emerging from the long and dark tunnel, there would be hope waiting for us. However, the situation in Seoul is not the case. I feel distressed about not being able to deliver to you messages of hope.
I feel apologetic, but I am determined to inform you about the situation as objectively and realistically as possible. Seeking how to deal with this this situation together is the only way to win the battle.
We are facing a new grave crisis.
We have not reached the end of the long tunnel. On the contrary, there are ominous signs of prolonged war and the second wave of the virus throughout in Seoul and the metropolitan area. The countless number of infections from the logistics center, door-to-door vendors, and small religious gatherings is increasing in the capital area following the spread of the virus from Itaewon clubs and its aftermath. The number of “silent spreaders,” or asymptomatic carriers, is increasing as well. The spark from the capital area is flying to other regions including Daejeon, causing collective infections.
If Seoul falls, the Republic of Korea will also fall at the feet of COVID-19. If the capital area falls, all the efforts we have made will go to waste. The Seoul Metropolitan Government has closely monitored the current situation and paid close attention to whether a worse crisis is rapidly approaching. City officials have taken great pains to search for a way to avoid the second wave of COVID-19 and minimize damages caused by the virus based on the opinions of many experts.
As a result of closely examining various aspects of the current circumstances, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has concluded that we have no option but to go back to “Social Distancing” if the average number of confirmed cases exceeds 30 for three consecutive days or if the occupancy of sickbeds reaches 70 percent (which means burden for the public healthcare system).
<Risk Factors and Possibility of 2nd Wave in Seoul>
Considering the explosive contagiousness of the novel coronavirus, the second wave can be triggered anytime unless we sever the connection between sporadic collective infectious right now. Experts of infectious disease anticipated that the second wave would start in the fall but the period may advance to July if the disease continues to spread at the current rate.
In fact, experts have recently predicted the upcoming situation by applying the diffusion model based on national data, and it was shocking. According to infectious disease specialists, the reproductive number (R) – the number of secondary infections generated from one infected individual – was 0.58, which means one new patient will be generated from just two confirmed cases. However, between April 30 to June 11, the national R index far more augmented to 1.79. The index has decreased a bit now, but if it continues to be the level it was 10 days ago, the number of confirmed cases a month later will reach 800. This means we are only a month away from the second wave.
The current state of the use of public transportation and the analysis of the data on the living population in Seoul (population existing in a certain area in Seoul at a certain point of time) arouses our attention. Compared to the same period last year, the number of bus and subway passengers during commuting hours decreased drastically by 37.5 percent after the implementation of the “Let’s Take a Break” campaign at the peak of the spread of the virus, as citizens worried about close contact refrained from using public transportation.
However, as of June, the number of passengers using public transportation is only 18 percent less compared to that of the same period last year, which means we are seeing an increase in the users of public transportation. At this rate, the number is expected to be fully recovered to normal by July.
Additionally, according to the analysis of the “living population in Seoul” based on the public and communication data of the Seoul Metropolitan Government and KT, the living population in major crowded areas in Seoul, including Jongno, Yeoksam-dong, Yeouido, and Samseong-dong, decreased during the period of “social distancing” to 78.1 percent compared to the normal rate, but increased to 85.4 percent after we began the “distancing in daily life” campaign in early May.
Our willingness to participate in “social distancing” is being compromised with the accumulation of fatigue surrounding the prolonged COVID-19 situation, resuming of social gatherings and meetings, deepening stagnation of the public economy, and increase in outdoor activities with the change of season. The step-by-step opening of schools also affected the loosening of the “distancing in daily life.”
What matters is that half the population of the Republic of Korea lives in Seoul, the city that boasts a high population density. This means Seoul is at high risk of COVID-19 infection with its virus-friendly conditions, such as closed and crowded places with close contact between individuals.
What makes us even more concerned is that if the second wave comes, we may face a situational level that will be hard for our healthcare system to handle. The fatigue of healthcare providers that has been accumulating since January has reached a dangerous level. If the epidemic of influenza is added in the fall or winter, we may encounter the worst case scenario in which our current healthcare system collapses.
We have witnessed that even the healthcare system of major cities in advanced countries, such as New York City, failed to respond to the speed of transmission, which led to the at-home deaths of confirmed patients with severe symptoms. It is not guaranteed that the capital of the Republic of Korea is free from such a situation as it is a megacity boasting a population of 25 million. If this becomes the case, it will be very different from the explosion of infections that we experienced in Daegu and Gyeongsangbuk-do Province. As the capital area is where the healthcare system is concentrated, if the Seoul breaks down, all other regions may fall as well.
Additionally, influenza will probably become another risk factor because, even though its fatality rate is relatively lower than COVID-19. Influenza’s fatality rate for children and adolescents are higher than that of COVID-19, which has a high fatality rate for the elderly and patients with underlying medical conditions. Considering the contagiousness of influenza of about 1 billion individuals per year and the similarity of its symptoms with COVID-19, we should get thoroughly prepared as soon as possible.
Another ominous shadow can be seen from situations in other countries around the world.
With the lifting of lockdown measures in many countries, the number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 is rapidly surging again. On June 19, the number reached 180,000, breaking the daily record.
The number of new confirmed cases per day in the United States has surpassed 30,000, and Brazil and India are seeing the greatest number of new confirmed cases day by day. As for Central and South America, the number of confirmed cases has doubled in 20 days from 1 million to 2 million. There are as many as 20 countries in which the number of new confirmed cases per day exceeds one thousand. Even New Zealand, which declared the end of the battle against COVID-19 on June 8, witnessed 9 new confirmed cases. Our reality tells us that no country can declare the end to the war against the COVID-19 virus without medicines and vaccines.
This is the warning that the second wave of the virus can occur at any time caused by international arrivals. We should take this warning seriously and heavily.
<Seoul’s Preparations for the 2nd Wave>
Now, I will tell you about Seoul’s plan and preparations for the second wave of COVID-19.
Above all, the Seoul Metropolitan Government will reinforce the 3T (Test-Trace-Treat) system on which it focused from the start of responses to COVID-19. It will ① Test and confirm, →② Trace and do epidemiological surveys, and → ③ Treat and isolate patients.
First, Seoul will run full-scale preemptive screenings to reinforce the monitoring system. The Seoul Metropolitan Government is already executing the nation’s first “preemptive screenings” in order to cut transmission by silent spreaders. 6,597 students and faculty who live in dormitories and 436 teachers of English-speaking kindergartens received testing, and they all were negative for the virus.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government also recruited 1,000 individuals who will be tested by the nation’s first preemptive testing targeting general citizens. The recruitment finished on its first day, showing high levels of interest from citizens. The first round of screening for 424 individuals started on June 15 and, fortunately, they all were negative for the virus. The second round of preemptive testing will be conducted for people living in risky blind spots, such as senior citizens at daycare centers, homeless people, people living in dosshouses, illegal immigrants, and more.
Second, the Seoul Metropolitan Government will reinforce the organization that will be in charge of studying and responding to infectious diseases as well as their capabilities of tracking and monitoring. In July, we will establish new departments, including the Epidemiological Study Office, Disinfection Control Team, and Infectious Disease Research Center.
Additionally, as small-scale collective infections are spreading in the capital area, the speed of tracking is not rapid enough to catch the speed at which the virus is spreading. Seoul will employ a much larger number of people to professionally conduct the epidemiological surveys to track down the paths of movement of the new confirmed patients in order to reinforce the capabilities of tracking and controlling.
Third, the Seoul Metropolitan Government will prepare a step-by-step response system to prevent the healthcare void caused by massive collective infections.
More specifically, the city will do its best to secure sickbeds for people with severe symptoms as the number of elderly patients is increasing. We will establish a treatment system for serious cases by collaborating with the Korean Society of Critical Care Medicine and the Seoul Emergency Medicine Support Team. Also, in order to prepare for the wide-range regional infections in the capital area, three metropolitan councils, including those of Seoul, Gyeonggi-do Province, and Incheon, together with the central government, will be ready to jointly operate sickbeds based on mutual support and a cooperative system.
At the same time, Seoul will be operating more facilities for self-isolation and daily treatment for asymptomatic or less severe patients.
<Responsible Action of Citizens – Social Distancing>
Today, I talked about going back to the social distancing campaign. We are still following the “distancing in daily life” rules, but I recommend that citizens remain alert and controlled themselves as if they are following the code of conduct for social distancing. Social distancing is the only and strongest way to fight the shrewd and clever virus in this situation in which we have no medicines or vaccines.
Therefore, we all must follow the “distancing” rules and keep our guards up. Wearing a mask is a duty and a must for prevention in everyday life. Also, please actively avoid every situation in which close contact, closeness, or crowdedness can occur, such as using indoor sports centers, gatherings, events and contests, small religious meetings, and more.
However, if Seoul is the only region in which citizens follow the “strong social distancing” rules, it will not reap large effects. Thus, the Seoul Metropolitan Government will be working hand in hand not only with the central government but also with other regions like Gyeonggi-do Province and Incheon while looking into the circumstances. Opening schools is another important issue, so we will closely cooperate with the Ministry of Education and the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.
The disinfection strategies that Seoul is reinforcing are 3T (Test-Track-Treat) and avoid 3C (Crowds-Closure-Contact). Whether these strategies will be successful depends on the participation of citizens. I will repeat: if the circumstances become worse, Seoul will enforce full-scale “social distancing” as a preemptive measure.
When we waged the “Let’s take a break” campaign in Seoul, we thought we could see the end of the COVID-19. Now, we know that this virus is more powerful and persistent than we expected. If we become careless, we may face a “long stop” that is more terrible than we have experienced, going beyond the brief halt. We have done well and K-disinfection has been applauded by many countries around the world. Shouldn’t we maintain our reputation? Why lose points in the second half when we have done so great in the first half?
I earnestly ask our citizens to take part in prevention while understanding the gravity of the situation. As always, Seoul will be on the front lines in the battle against COVID-19. The vaccine for Seoul is its unwavering citizens.