When the Coronavirus outbreak in South Korea could get out of control and infections increased thirty times in just ten days in the past month, the country's health authorities had an unexpected interruption. The mysterious religious sect, whose meetings were early carriers of the virus's spread, had agreed to disclose the names of all 212,000 members – important information to find out where it would appear next.
The deal was brokered in part by Jung Eun-kyeong, head of the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose management of the response has made her a national hero and a potential role model for virus fighters in other countries. Since the agreement with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus on February 25, South Korea has tested more than 320,000 people. This is a diagnostic blitzkrieg that has increased the daily number of new infections to less than 100 compared to more than 900 two weeks ago.
As a former town doctor who was deeply involved in responding to a 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome epidemic that killed 38 people in Korea, boys' daily briefings have become a must-see on TV for many citizens. Social media praises their straightforward approach to pandemic communication: tell the public exactly what is going on without promising too much what is possible.
"There is no one in this situation who can do the job better than Jung," said former CDC director Jung Ki-sucken, who is now a professor at Hallym University Medical Center. (He and the current director have nothing to do with each other.) "This work cannot be done only with knowledge. It has experience with previous outbreaks. It knows what can and cannot be done."
Although it was one of the first countries outside of China to experience a major epidemic, Korea's response was measured against the US and Europe. Cities are not closed, many jobs remain open and the school is expected to start again in early April. The CDC's aggressive early action, which focused on an enormous but targeted test operation that was much faster than efforts in the United States and the United Kingdom, was a major reason to avoid more drastic measures.
Starting with members of the Church in Daegu, the city about 150 miles from Seoul that focused on Korea's outbreak, officials systematically extended the testing effort to other members who had been in contact with them.
Korea's experience could be a playbook on how to reverse an apparently out of control epidemic in a country that is not governed by an authoritarian regime like China or a compact city-state like Singapore.
"Perhaps no other country with an epidemic spread of broad-based testing and mitigation backed by excellent health care has been as effective as South Korea," said Scott Gottlieb, former head of the US Food and Drug Administration, earlier in one Twitter post this month. "The United States should now learn lessons from the steps they have taken."
Error! Filename not specified. Employees spray disinfectant into a Seoul Metro subway on March 11.
The last time Jung was part of a team tasked with fighting an outbreak, the results were less positive. After working as a family doctor in Yangju, a city on the outskirts of Seoul, she joined the National Ministry of Health as a researcher in 1995 and was promoted to head of the emergency department during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, which hit 750,000 South Koreans. She was appointed director of the CDC Center for Disease Prevention when MERS met six years later.
The CDC has been widely criticized for dealing with MERS, which is far more deadly but less contagious than Covid-19 – especially whether it provided enough information to an anxious public. For example, in some cities, officials found that MERS patients had been brought to local hospitals without official notice.
A government investigation followed, with some lawmakers calling for the CDC's top ranks to be dismissed. That didn't happen, but according to local media reports, Jung and other officials had to cut wages back then. In 2016, however, she was blamed for a new unit responsible for coordinating the government's response to future outbreaks, before being promoted to the agency's top position the following year.
This time the CDC was moving fast. A system introduced after the MERS crisis involved test kits that were approved by local biotech companies and researchers within weeks. This process usually takes a year. The agency also communicates more.
In January, before the virus had even taken hold in Korea, Jung held briefings twice a day that included, among other things, the locations that patients visited before they were hospitalized. (They have been reduced to one a day since then). Smartphone users near these locations will then receive notifications with even more detailed information.
"Our information disclosure is based on the principle that we inform people about the information they need to know," said Jung in one of her briefings.
But it is the test approach that gives Korea its advantage. The country approved its first coronavirus test on February 4, just 16 days after the first domestic case was confirmed. By February 27, four different companies were producing test kits that the authorities could use to process up to 20,000 people a day. Jung's teams are now working on novel methods of performing the tests, from transit centers to compact stations that look like phone booths.
The CDC declined a request from Bloomberg News for an interview with Jung, saying it had no time to focus on anything other than fighting the virus. A staff member of the agency, who asked not to be identified to discuss internal matters, confirmed to local media reports that she was essentially 24 hours a day at her emergency response center just to visit an outside food truck or drive fast Nap.
Jung "has done this job for a long time and knows the system better than anyone else," said Ki Moran, a professor at the National Cancer Center, who she has known for more than 20 years. Still, she said Koreans should remember that Jung is the most public member of a much larger effort. "I hope the media don't show Jung as a hero," added Ki. "It's great. But if an organization is powered by only one or two heroes, it's a risky system."
Like every country affected by the pandemic, Korea is not out of the woods yet. Both Singapore and Hong Kong have seen new cases in recent days, mainly driven by patients who have recently traveled overseas – a reminder of the importance of continuous vigilance. Health experts have warned that this virus could appear in multiple waves.
However, for many Koreans, it was important to watch Jung on TV to feel that things were more or less under control. Some have set up fan sites or suggested that she should be appointed prime minister when the dust subsides. Others have expressed concerns that she will get enough rest. During a press conference, a Korean reporter asked Jung the truth of an online rumor that she slept less than an hour every night.
"More than an hour," she corrected him before moving on to the next question.