Starting Sunday, South Korea is to test everyone entering the country from Europe -- Koreans and foreign nationals alike -- for the novel coronavirus, as the government scrambles to prevent infections coming in from abroad.
Returnees and travelers arriving in the country from Europe for a long-term stay will be required to self-quarantine at their homes or at state-run facilities for two weeks, health authorities said Friday.
The move comes amid growing public concerns that weekslong domestic efforts to slow the spread of the virus could be offset by a rising number of imported cases.
Adding to the concerns, there were also cases where people without any symptoms passed screening at airports but were later found to be infected.
As of Thursday, an estimated 79 people had been infected with the virus abroad before coming to Korea, according to the authorities. Among them, 16 tested positive during the quarantine screening at airports.
Among those who entered Korea from Europe and showed symptoms of infection, 5 percent had tested positive for the virus as of Friday, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Korea, which had seen spikes in new cases until early March, started to see a slowdown in new infections in the past two weeks. On Friday, 87 new cases were reported, bringing the total number of infections to 8,652. The death toll stands at 94, according to the KCDC.
What happens upon arrival
Now, all entrants to the country must undergo fever checks at air terminals or seaports.
Among those entering the country from Europe, entrants who have potential coronavirus symptoms such as a cough or a sore throat will be sent to quarantine facilities to get tested for the virus.
Those showing no symptoms will be sent to separate facilities for testing.
A facility with 800 rooms will be set up for asymptomatic entrants from abroad, said Yoon Tae-ho, a senior Health Ministry official who is in charge of containment measures.
All entrants from Europe -- regardless of whether they have symptoms -- will have to stay at the facilities until the test results come out, which takes about one day.
What happens if the test comes out positive?
Those who test positive for the virus will be taken to hospitals or designated treatment centers depending on the severity of their symptoms.
Even if a person tests negative, those who plan to stay here long-term -- Koreans and foreign nationals alike -- will be required to self-quarantine at their homes for 14 days. Those without homes in Korea will be sent to designated facilities for a two-week quarantine.
Short-term travelers, if they test negative for the virus, will come under “active” monitoring through a mobile application, with authorities checking on their health condition by phone on a daily basis during their stay here.
Some 67 percent of the foreign nationals who arrived in Korea from Europe during the past week were to stay here long-term. The rest were here for short-term purposes, including public affairs, investment and reporting, Yoon said.
What happens if you are a foreigner and are put in isolation?
In cases where foreign nationals arriving from Europe are put in isolation, they will be provided living allowances -- 454,900 won for a single household when isolated for more than 14 days -- and holiday expenses.
The same rules will apply to foreign nationals if they fail to follow the self-isolation instructions.
For violating the self-isolation rules, fines of up to 3 million won ($2,400) can be imposed. Starting in April, the punishment will be toughened to imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of up to 100 million won.
As of Wednesday, 90 percent of those arriving in Korea from Europe were Koreans, according to the authorities.
More information on the government’s quarantine measures is available in English and Chinese on the ministry’s website (http://ncov.mohw.go.kr/en/ and http://ncov.mohw.go.kr/cn/).
Why only Europe?
“We prepared the special entry procedures because it was difficult to manage cases that had been asymptomatic upon entry and started to show symptoms in local communities, but given the situation in Europe, we thought the measure fell slightly short of (what needed to be done),” said Yoon from the Health Ministry at Friday’s briefing.
“But the situation in the US is different from that in Europe, given the infection occurrence rate and so on,” he said.
He also said the virus is spreading much faster in Europe than in China.
The government is closely watching the situation outside Korea to prevent the inflow of COVID-19 from overseas, he said, adding that it would expand the procedures for arrivals from countries outside Europe if necessary.
Europe is now at the center of the coronavirus crisis, with Italy having just surpassed China as the country with the largest number of deaths related to COVID-19. The virus has spread to more than 170 countries and territories, claiming more than 8,800 lives and sickening 210,000 people worldwide.
On Thursday, China reported no new locally transmitted cases of the coronavirus, which originated in the country’s Hubei province, for the first time since the pandemic began, marking a major turning point.