Six Months Into Pandemic, U.S.'s Daily Coronavirus Case Count 2,392 Times Higher Than South Korea's

The U.S. and South Korea both reported their first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus six months ago, on January 20. But now, half a year later, the two countries face dramatically different situations when it comes to their respective outbreaks.

On Sunday, South Korea reported just 26 new confirmed infections, while the U.S. reported 62,198. To put that in perspective, the number of new infections on Sunday was 2,392 times higher in the U.S. than in South Korea. Notably, just four of the cases reported in South Korea on Sunday were from local infections, while the rest were cases of people who had come from abroad.

In total, South Korea now has 13,771 confirmed infections, whereas the U.S. has more than 3.7 million. Well over 140,000 people have now died in the U.S., while in South Korea just 296 have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

"Most countries that have been combating this outbreak as long as we have were able to control it through a coordinated public health strategy that heavily emphasized testing, contact tracing, mask compliance and other virus prevention tactics," U.S. Representative Suzan DelBene of Washington told Newsweek. Her district reported the virus's initial case in the U.S.

South Korea during Coronavirus
Outside a Seoul station on July 8, South Koreans walk below a display on a building showing messages of support for health workers and the country during the coronavirus pandemic. ED JONES/AFP/Getty

"South Korea, which reported its first case the same day as the U.S., has been steadily reporting new cases in the double digits while we recently reported over 70,000 in a single day," she said.

DelBene, a Democrat, criticized President Donald Trump for his response to the pandemic.

"President Trump has shown he is both unwilling and incapable of addressing this crisis. We have the tools to create a robust national response, but the administration continues to keep its head firmly in the sand, avoiding the fact that 140,000 Americans have died from this virus," the congresswoman said.

Newsweek reached out to the White House for comment, but it did not respond in time for publication.

Dr. Jon Andrus, a professor of global health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, told Newsweek that "top-level leadership" in the nation should have "supported a coordinated effort by leading public health agencies" such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We failed to do so," Andrus said.

Despite its close proximity to China, where the pandemic first began in the city of Wuhan, South Korea managed to curb the spread of new infections relatively quickly after an initial spike in February. With a population of nearly 52 million, South Korea reached its peak in new infections on March 1, the only time the country confirmed more than 1,000 new cases in a single day. Since then, cases declined steadily and have remained in the double digits, or lower, since the beginning of April.

Unlike the U.S., South Korea never implemented full lockdowns. Instead, the country quickly ramped up testing and contact tracing while encouraging residents to wear masks and practice social distancing. The country also turned to smartphone apps to spread information about where infected individuals had visited. Those who tested positive were required to quarantine or face significant fines. Through these efforts, the country was able to dramatically curb the spread of new infections and save countless lives.

"Going forward, our public health infrastructure urgently needs support to respond with testing, case identification and tracing of contacts similar to what was done in South Korea and other countries of South Asia who survived the SARS and MERS scares previously," Andrus told Newsweek. "They used those experiences to build on best practices."

The health expert explained that Asian nations that effectively flattened their curves in new infections relied on large teams of contact tracers to find and isolate those who had been exposed to infected individuals. "Experts have cited that they were able to assign on average 1 contact investigator to every 500 to 5,000 population. We dismally fall short of that [in the U.S.," Andrus said.

Meanwhile, in some parts of the U.S., with a population of 328 million, it still remains difficult for people to get tested. When they do get tested, results often take from four to seven days. In the meantime, individuals are generally asked to quarantine, but it is not required. Instead of a national approach to the crisis, the Trump administration has pushed off much of the responsibility to state leaders. Now, half a year into the U.S. outbreak, the country continues to have the highest number of infections and deaths from the virus.

"Our response would have benefited from stricter implementation of social and physical distancing measures across geographic areas. Now that we understand the role of masks going forward, we should mandate stricter use in areas where appropriate," Andrus said.

"We failed to provide adequate leadership, and excellence in technical and operational implementation of strategies shown to have been highly effective," the professor explained.

Coronavirus Task Force Briefing
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on May 15, flanked by coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

"Look, I take responsibility always for everything, because it's ultimately my job, too. I have to get everybody in line," Trump said in a Sunday interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. But the president attempted to deflect some of the blame to governors, who have often complained about a lack of support from Washington.

"Some governors have done well, some governors have done poorly. They're supposed to have supplies they didn't have. I supplied everybody," the president said.

Trump also claimed incorrectly, as he and other administration officials have in recent weeks, that the U.S. has the "lowest" mortality rate from COVID-19. According to an analysis by Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. actually ranks third among the world's most affected countries for deaths per 100,000 residents.

Even though South Korea has curbed the spread of new infections, the government there remains vigilant and concerned about a possible second wave.

"In the situation where COVID-19 is raging worldwide and a long fight is inevitable, our goal is to contain and control the size and pace of the virus outbreaks to a level where our medical, quarantine and social systems can manage them so that we can protect lives of those in high-risk groups—such as the elderly—and minimize the social and economic fallout," said Jeong Eun-kyeong, chief of Korea's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a Monday press briefing.