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This is how South Korea flattened its coronavirus curve

South Korea's COVID-19 infection rates have been falling for two weeks thanks to a rigorous testing regime and clear public information.
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SEOUL, South Korea — It took Thomas Streetman two hours to walk out his front door, take a cab to the public health center, get tested for the coronavirus and make it back to his apartment.

Streetman, 32, an Ohio native — who had a slight fever — was greeted with blue tents scattered across a surprisingly barren street. Medical staff clad head to toe in hazmat suits conducted screenings as another staff member fogged the sidewalk with disinfectant spray.

"It was almost militaristic," said Streetman, who has lived in the South Korean capital for almost a decade. "They stuck a long swab up my nose pretty deep. It felt like a button poked my nerves and released my sinuses."

Image: Tom Streetman
Tom Streetman works as a marketing manager at a gaming company in Seoul.Grace Moon / NBC News

Streetman, who works as a marketing manager at a gaming company in Seoul, received his negative results in less than 24 hours and is now one of more than 327,000 people out of the country's 51 million-strong population to have been tested for the coronavirus in South Korea since the country confirmed its first case Jan. 21.

The U.S., which confirmed its first case the same day, is suffering from the repercussions of a weeks-late start in obtaining test kits.

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Since March 11, South Korea has seen a general decline in the number of new coronavirus cases, some as low as 74 and 76 each day — a stark comparison to its peak of 909 cases Feb. 29.

The U.S. is one of many countries that has followed South Korea's lead by beginning to install drive-thru testing hubs at CVS, but the slow installations come at a time of national panic with over 80 million Americans already under lockdown.

Here's what we can learn from South Korea.

Early testing, detection, prevention

News that China had reported its first case of the coronavirus was enough reason for South Korean leaders and medical staff to brace themselves for the worst.

"Acting fast was the most important decision South Korea made," said Hwang Seung-Sik, a professor at Seoul National University's Graduate School of Public Health.

By early February, the first test had been approved. Active collaboration among central and regional government officials and medical staff took place before cases began piling up, enabling South Korea's current testing capacity of 20,000 people a day at 633 sites, including drive-thru centers and even phone booths.

The collaborative effort was underway just 11 days after "Patient 31," a member of a secretive religious group called the Shincheonji Church, caused an explosion of infections in Daegu, a major city 170 miles southeast of Seoul.

Image: The text Tom Streetman received notifying him of his negative results.
The text Tom Streetman received notifying him of his negative results.Grace Moon / NBC News

Early testing meant early detection of infections in South Korea, where a relatively larger proportion of patients showed either no symptoms or very mild ones, according to Hwang.

"Among Shincheonji members, there were many 20- and 30-year-olds who were infected. Many of them may have never even known they were carrying the virus and recovered easily while silently infecting those around them," Hwang said. "Early testing is why Korea hasn't reached its breaking point yet."

Under South Korea's single-payer health care system, getting tested costs $134. But with a doctor's referral or for those who've made contact with an infected person, testing is free. Even undocumented foreigners are urged to get tested and won't face threats due to their status.

Extensive tracing and mapping

South Korean leaders have amped up efficiency for overwhelmed hospitals by digitally monitoring lower-risk patients under quarantine, as well as keeping close tabs on visiting travelers who are required to enter their symptoms into an app.

Sites like Corona Map generate real-time updates about where current patients are located and inform proactive Koreans focused on protecting themselves.

That people are willing to forgo privacy rights and allow the publication of sensitive information underlines the willingness to pay the digital cost of state surveillance in the name of public safety, said professor Ju Youngkee, who teaches health and data journalism at Hallym University.

According to a survey conducted last month by Seoul National University's Graduate School of Public Health, 78.5 percent of respondents agreed that they would sacrifice the protection of their privacy rights to help prevent a national epidemic.

Public spaces transformed into PSA venues

The refusal by some Britons to follow the government's social distancing measures in the United Kingdom prompted the closings of thousands of pubs, cafés and restaurants last week, leaving many to consider layoffs and shutting for good.

In South Korea, however, reminders from the government aren't delivered in the form of blanket lockdowns. Commuters wait at platforms and in subway cars as announcements are played in different languages, including English and Chinese. A female voice lists tips such as "blocking" your mouth when coughing.

The broadcasts are one of many upgrades from the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak — a failing of the South Korean system that cost 38 lives and amounted to 186 cases, the highest number outside the Middle East.

Image: A pharmacy in southern Seoul
People wait outside a pharmacy in southern Seoul to buy their weekly ration of two masks.Grace Moon / NBC News

Now, hand sanitizer bottles are placed in front of nearly every entrance and elevator for public use. And of the 1,000 people who took part in a study by Seoul National University, 97.6 percent responded that they at least sometimes wear a mask when they are outside, 63.6 percent of whom said they always wear one.

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"Wearing masks or self-monitoring alone isn't foolproof to people in Korea, but taking part in these practices as a group is believed to have an impact," said Michael Hurt, who teaches cultural theory at Korea National University of the Arts.

"This says that your individual choices may not have immediate benefit to you as an individual but will benefit the herd — that it doesn't work unless everybody is in the game."

Cautious hopefulness

Despite its apparently swift recovery from the coronavirus, South Korea may only be entering the beginning stages of what experts suspect may be a long ride ahead.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80 percent of COVID-19 cases can be categorized as mass infections. A call center in southwestern Seoul was at the center of a local outbreak this month that generated more than 156 infections. About 90 cases were traced to a Zumba class.

"Even though the number of reported cases is declining, this may be painting an illusion of recovery," Hwang said. "All 210,000 Shincheonji members have been tested, which may account for the decline we're seeing, but local infection clusters are emerging every day in churches, hospitals and other mundane spaces."

South Korea has already started new testing on all arrivals from Europe, according to local news reports, preparing for a "second wave" of imported clusters. Even those who test negative are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

"We are proceeding with cautious hopefulness," Hwang said.