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In Daegu, Coronavirus Leaves City A 'Shadow Of Its Usual Bustling Self'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

South Korea's fourth-largest city, Daegu, is the main battlefield for the country's fight against the new coronavirus. The city accounts for about three-quarters of the country's roughly 7,000 cases. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the explosion of cases has overwhelmed the city's hospitals, forced medical authorities to change their tactics.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The city of Daegu, about 150 miles southeast of Seoul, has long been an industrial center and transport hub. But lately, the city of 2 1/2 million has become a shadow of its usual bustling self.

LEE JUN-YEUP: (Through interpreter) It actually looks like a scene from a disaster movie.

KUHN: Dr. Lee Jun-yeup is communications director for the Daegu Medical Association.

LEE: (Through interpreter) Streets are empty. Restaurants and shops are closed. People stock up on instant noodles not because other foods are in short supply but because they want to avoid going out.

KUHN: On February 18, a 61-year-old woman was confirmed as Daegu's first coronavirus case. Investigators believe she came into contact with over 1,100 people. Most are fellow members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious group which accounts for most of the cases in Daegu. Dr. Choi Sung-ho (ph) of Chung-Ang University College of Medicine in Seoul explains one reason why the virus spreads so quickly.

CHOI SUNG-HO: (Through interpreter) With this virus, symptoms are mild in the early phase, even though viral transmission is high. Patients may not realize they are infected, and so they go about their everyday lives.

KUHN: Lee Jun-yeup says at first, there was just a trickle of patients, and Daegu hospitals were able to care for them.

LEE: (Through interpreter) Daegu's city policy at first was to put every patient in a negative pressure room regardless of the severity of their symptoms.

KUHN: Negative pressure rooms isolate infected patients by preventing contaminated air from escaping the room. People who came into contact with an infected person, Dr. Lee explains, were quarantined in public hospitals or other facilities.

LEE: (Through interpreter) It wasn't a mistake, but the city didn't expect the number of patients to grow so fast.

KUHN: In other words, a lack of proper triaging left the hospital system clogged with patients with mild symptoms. As of Friday, some 1,800 patients, or almost 40% of Daegu's total, were at home awaiting hospital beds. Two have already died waiting. Doctors say they must now deal with a new chapter in the epidemic. Kim Hyeong-gab (ph), president of the Korean Association of Public Health Doctors, says he's seeing a shift in tactics from trying to contain and trace the virus to trying to mitigate his impact and prevent deaths.

KIM HYEONG-GAB: (Through interpreter) Since last Saturday, I've seen government efforts to securing more hospital beds and building a triaging system. This is still going on. Critics who say the government has been a step behind in shifting to a mitigation strategy do have a point.

KUHN: Choi Sung-ho says that the next logical step in containing the epidemic could be a difficult one.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) I believe the surest way is to stop people's activities and movements. And I personally suspect that the government understands this and wants to impose stricter limits on social activities.

KUHN: But a domestic travel ban could be politically unpopular. And so far, Seoul hasn't even suggested one. As for Daegu, it remains unclear when case numbers there will peak and then begin to decline. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.