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Could the UK have fared better managing COVID-19 outbreak?

By Brendan Day, DTI
July 30, 2020

LONDON, UK: Though the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, it has been going on long enough for certain lessons to have been gleaned from the way in which different countries have responded to it. This proposition forms the thrust of a recent British Dental Journal opinion article, which compares and contrasts measures implemented in the UK with those instituted in South Korea—two countries that have been affected by the spread of SARS-CoV-2 on vastly different scales.

The first case of SARS-CoV-2 in South Korea was detected on 20 January, ten days before anyone in the UK had been diagnosed with the virus. The two countries are similar in certain respects. In 2019, the UK’s population was estimated to be just under 67 million and South Korea’s was approximately 50 million in 2016. Both countries have developed economies and are members of the G20, an international forum for fiscal policy discussion and cooperation.

Though South Korea’s number of cases rose rapidly after the diagnosis of the first case, the country has since managed to greatly reduce daily new infections to the point where it was able to successfully hold a legislative election on schedule on 15 April. According to the World Health Organization, South Korea had experienced 14,251 confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 and 300 related deaths by 29 July—numbers dwarfed by the 300,668 cases and 45,878 related deaths that have occurred in the UK to this point.

Mass testing helped South Korea control SARS-CoV-2 spread

According to the article’s authors, reasons for South Korea’s relative success in limiting the spread of
SARS-CoV-2 include early mass testing, comprehensive contact tracing and strictly enforced regulations regarding the quarantining of those who come into contact with a confirmed case. A combination of these measures and extreme diligence in terms of infection control has meant that, unlike their UK counterparts, South Korean dental practices have largely remained open throughout the pandemic and have even been able to conduct aerosol-generating procedures.

“In our opinion, mass testing could have, and should have, been implemented in the UK earlier,” co-author Kowoon Noh told Dental Tribune International.

“Before the mass outbreak in Europe and the US, we were able to see the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in other countries. South Korean management strategies against SARS-CoV-2 were already highlighted in late February to early March, weeks before the UK implemented a strict lockdown. South Korea's aggressive, yet transparent and consensual, approach in tackling the spread of SARS-CoV-2 helped the country to flatten the curve without imposing a lockdown,” Noh added.

“Mass testing could have, and should have, been implemented in the UK earlier” – Kowoon Noh

How the UK can become better prepared

The recent easing of the lockdown in the UK has enabled many of the nation’s dental practices to reopen in recent weeks, though many stakeholders across the dental industry have expressed concerns about matters such as COVID-19-related stress and a lack of financial support. According to the article’s authors, the prevention of a second wave of SARS-CoV-2 cases by strictly enforcing social distancing measures and rigorous contact tracing are of paramount importance in order to ensure that UK dentists can remain at work. Personal hygiene should be a point of focus for dentists and patients alike, and self-assessments of the infection control and decontamination protocols of dental practices must be conducted. On a larger scale, the authors recommend that UK health authorities implement a long-term response plan in order to ensure that routine dental care can continue to be provided even though a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 is not yet publicly available.

“The impact of the cessation of routine dental care was tremendous, and it will take a significant time for dental practitioners to return to pre-COVID-19 levels,” said Noh. “The best approach to minimise the effect of SARS-CoV-2 on dental practices in the UK from now is to prevent a second wave, to continue testing and contact tracing measures, and to minimise the exposure of high-risk patients to healthcare environments.”

Editorial note: The opinion article, titled “Could we have prevented all this? A comparison of the British and South Korean primary dental care response to COVID-19”, was published online on 26 June 2020 in the British Dental Journal.

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