The COVID-19 Long-Term Care situation in South Korea

Hongsoo Kim, Seoul National University

This posts provides a brief overview of what can be learnt from the long-term care policy response to COVID-19 in South Korea, which is explained in more detail in this report.

South Korea kept a minimum level of restrictions until late March, when the government recommended strict social distancing measures; yet there are still no massive lockdowns or closure of the country’s borders. Citizens and companies quite autonomously follow social distancing measures. No food hoarding has happened in any part of the country. For multiple consecutive days the number of newly confirmed cares has remained around ten in Korea, but there are concerns about another potential outbreak after the loosening of social distancing measures. A set of population-level measures has worked quite well to contain the spread of COVID-19 while keeping a low level of restrictions with citizens’ cooperation:

  • Extensive testing and tracing using information technology;
  • tests and treatments at no or relatively low cost are provided under the universal coverage of the national health insurance;
  • transparent communication between the responsible government bodies and the public, with quite extensive epidemiologic data and travel route information of infected people available without personal identification data.

While containing the spread of COVID-19 at the population level quite successfully with low-level approaches, the Korean government took more aggressive approaches to contain the spread in LTC institutions and social-welfare facilities when collective infections occurred in a few long-term care hospitals (LTCHs) and other care settings, including instituting nationwide monitoring and inspections of LTCHs as well as cohort quarantines in select facilities in the two regions with high numbers of confirmed cases. Along with such strict measures, additional preventive and supportive measures for LTC institutions were also established, such as temporary reimbursement packages, masks for care workers supplied at a relatively low cost, provision of guidelines, etc. No massive infections in LTCHs or LTC facilities have been reported under the series of measures implemented.

Future challenges:

Considering the limited sustainability of infection control measures after the current acute stage of COVID-19 passes, it will be necessary to strengthen infection monitoring and control systems and the relevant professional workforce. Compared to the containment measures for institutional LTC settings, those for home care agencies are relatively weak; tailored containment measures are needed for highly vulnerable people residing at home with LTC needs, such as people with dementia and those with mental and physical disabilities. It is also imperative to provide meaningful and effective support for informal caregivers with increased demands on them due to the closure of social welfare facilities and to the lack of (or reduced) visits of home care personnel during possible future epidemic outbreaks. The current shared challenges of ensuring quality LTC under COVID-19 may open a wider policy window for building integrated care delivery systems and investing in health and care innovation using technology in South Korea and beyond.

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