A health care worker sterilizes equipment after transporting a COVID-19 patient to Seoul Medical Center in Jungnang-gu, Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)
For foreign residents in Korea who do not speak the local language, now may feel like the most dangerous time to live here since the pandemic began.
Over the recent week, over 200,000 people a day in South Korea have been diagnosed with COVID-19. With no sign yet of the country pulling out of the omicron surge, the pressure on the medical system is increasing dangerously day by day.
Yet, all patients are supposed to take responsibility for their own safe recovery at home, unless they belong to certain “high- risk” groups. In other words, no one will be checking on you, unless you are recognized as being especially vulnerable.
From testing and quarantine to getting medication, following is what you need to know if you find yourself with a case of COVID-19 here.
How can I get a PCR test?
Polymerase chain reaction tests are no longer free for all. To get a free PCR test at a public health center as before, you now have to be eligible.
Eligible for free PCR tests are high-risk groups, including people aged over 60, people with underlying health conditions, pregnant women and those who are officially identified by authorities as “close contacts” of an infected person, like family members or health care professionals.
If you don’t belong to any of these groups, you should take a rapid antigen test first. Rapid tests are available at public health centers and quite many, but not all, neighborhood clinics. You can also do it on your own with a self-test kit. Two red lines means a positive result, after which you are qualified for a PCR.
To find locations for PCR testing, local GPS maps will come in handy. Naver Map and Kakao Map both have English versions. Google Maps also has some information on testing locations.
Once you get there, be sure to stand in the correct line. There will be two lines -- one for rapid tests and another for PCR tests. These days, the PCR lines tend to be longer.
If you are pretty sure that you have COVID-19, it would be better to just head straight to the testing sites where you can get a rapid and then a PCR test all at once.
Testing done. What next?
Wait for the message. Your result -- negative or positive -- will come via text message, usually the morning after your test.
In a positive case, you will also receive a link to a website where you should upload personal information, including family relations and close contacts, as well as underlying health conditions.
Based on this survey, officials classify patients into two groups -- intensive care group and general management group -- which entail different at-home treatment protocols. This classification process could take one or two days.
People in the intensive management patient group --- those aged 60 and older or those in their 50s with underlying health issues or weak immune systems -- are monitored by health care institutions twice daily via phone calls and given a care kit that includes thermometers and a pulse oximeter.
For everybody else, it is their responsibility to monitor their own health and seek medical help when needed.
How to do telemedicine?
Non-face-to-face medical consultations are available for COVID-19 patients free of charge.
In the Seoul area, finding a hospital and clinic that offers medical consultation via phone is not easy. But if you live in other areas, the situation may be different. So, check in advance if a clinic that you usually go to offers telemedicine services for COVID-19 home treatment.
After a phone consultation, the doctor will write out a prescription and refer it to a pharmacy near you. To pick up the medicine, you may need the help of an uninfected person -- a family member, friend or acquaintance. Some pharmacies offer free delivery or you can opt for a paid quick delivery service.
While Korean nationals can use telemedicine apps including Doctor Now and Olla Care, these apps are generally not available for foreigners.
Various government-run and non-profit organizations are now providing language support for foreigners here with COVID-19 as well.
How can I get Paxlovid?
In South Korea, the use of Paxlovid -- an oral antiviral to treat COVID-19 -- is restricted to patients aged 60 and older, people with underlying diseases in their 40s and 50s and those with weakened immune systems.
Since it is a prescription drug, you need to have a medical consultation with a doctor first. Patients under at-home treatment can seek phone consultation and prescription from designated clinics. Only about 470 pharmacies across the country have the Pfizer pill in stock. For instance, there is only one pharmacy with the oral medication in the city of Gyeongju.
So if you think you need the oral antiviral, do not hesitate too long to ask for it. Paxlovid is known to work best when administered early.
When should I seek help?
Symptoms that require immediate medical attention are blood oxygen saturation levels under 94 percent, chest pressure or pain, difficulty breathing or staying awake and nails or lips turning pale or blue, among others.
In such cases, you need to contact medical staff using the numbers in the text message you have received from health authorities. If you cannot get through, which is to be expected due to the massive number of daily infections these days, try telemedicine services, through which a doctor can make a request for a hospital bed. You can also call 119 emergency services if you think you are in urgent need of care. You need to let them know that you are a COVID-19 patient in advance.
When can I return to work?
The self-quarantine period ends seven days after the date of sample collection, regardless of the patient‘s vaccination history. This is when you may return to work, although some workplaces may be more cautious and have their own guidelines.
Health authorities advise people to take precautions for another three days at least, such as by refraining from going to crowded places.
A family member tested positive. Should I self-quarantine?
No. Quarantine rules have changed recently so that people living with a confirmed patient are not required to quarantine at home, regardless of their vaccination status.
Two tests are required, though. A PCR test first within three days is to be followed by a rapid antigen test -- or PCR test for those over 60 years old -- on the sixth or seventh day.