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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on March 26)

All News 07:01 March 26, 2020

Imported COVID-19 cases
: Good to conduct tests on all travelers from US

The government said Wednesday it will conduct coronavirus tests on all passengers arriving from the United States, and place them under a mandatory two-week self-quarantine beginning Friday, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms.

The administration had already implemented similar measures for all arrivals from Europe last week, and has strengthened screening procedures for travelers arriving from other continents as well, although it has kept travel restrictions at minimal levels.

The planned measures for those traveling to Korea from the U.S., albeit belated, will be helpful in containing the spread of the virus here as Korea, like other countries, has seen the number of COVID-19 cases in those arriving from overseas soar recently.

The rise is largely thanks to the aggressive implementation of virus tests for travelers from abroad. Stricter measures must be applied, including expanding travel restrictions or quarantining inbound travelers in confinement facilities, if needed, as more people may enter the country in the coming weeks due to spikes of confirmed cases in the U.S. and Europe.

South Korea has been relatively successful in dealing with the outbreak and there indeed have been encouraging signs of stabilization here. But it is too early to relax. We should learn lessons from Hong Kong, which is suffering from a new wave of infections after it rushed to ease restrictions and reopen government institutions.

Some infected travelers who don't show symptoms at the time of arrival could become a major threat if mishandled. For instance, a 33-year-old Korean woman living in Busan was confirmed as the 108th patient in the city after returning from a month-long trip to the U.S. and Mexico. When she arrived at Incheon International Airport via a flight from Cancun on March 18, she had a fever, but it was not high enough to require her to be tested for the virus. In Busan alone, six people have been tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks right after returning from overseas trips.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the authorities detected 51 new "imported cases" ― 43 South Korean nationals and eight foreigners ― on Tuesday alone, the biggest single-day rise so far. Of the 51 cases, 34 were detected at airports. As of Wednesday afternoon, the country reported a total of 101 imported cases, but this is expected to surge once virus tests on all travelers from the U.S. take effect.

What is also urgent is to map out measures for foreigners staying illegally in Korea who are avoiding tests due to concerns about possible repercussions. In particular, there should be a thorough inspection of nursing homes, restaurants and small factories, where many illegal immigrants are presumed to be working. The government estimates that roughly 400,000 foreigners are staying in the country illegally, or 15 percent of the total foreign population here.

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