The KBO's return depended on South Korea containing coronavirus. Does MLB stand a chance?

Jack Baer

On Tuesday, South Korea’s KBO did something that currently remains unthinkable in the United States. It started playing regular season baseball games.

As Major League Baseball remains shut down indefinitely due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, South Korea’s incredible progress in containing the virus has allowed the return of the KBO with enough time to potentially play its entire regular season. The league is getting almost nightly coverage on ESPN, and likely represents the closest thing American fans will get to MLB in the coming months.

However, fans will still likely yearn to see the players they’re familiar with, as well as games held earlier than 1 a.m. ET. With each KBO game aired, it’s hard not to wonder how long it will take for MLB to follow suit.

[ Coronavirus: How the sports world is responding to the pandemic ]

It’s tempting to see the KBO as a precursor to MLB’s return. But when you look at the respective work of the South Korean and U.S. governments in combating the pandemic, it becomes clear that it could be a long while before America’s level of containment looks similar to the conditions supporting baseball in South Korea.

South Korea has all but eliminated the spread of the coronavirus

As the coronavirus threat really started going global earlier this year, it was clear South Korea faced a grave threat. It was a country with roughly 15 percent of the population of the United States, but packed into less than 0.4 percent of the geographic space. And it was in close proximity to China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

By late February, only China had more coronavirus cases than South Korea. By mid-March, the country had roughly the same number of deaths as the United States.

And then, the new cases basically stopped emerging. On April 18, a country with a population of more than 50 million had a single-digit number of new confirmed cases according to the World Health Organization. By the end of April, the country was reporting that number was down to zero.

It’s difficult to fathom seeing similar numbers in the United States anytime soon. The world leader in reported coronavirus cases had more than 29,000 new confirmed cases in the most recent WHO report, a figure larger than South Korea’s entire caseload. More than 60,000 people have died.

That raises a simple question. How has South Korea been so much more successful than the U.S. in containing the virus?

Testing is what separates South Korea and the United States

Experts point to a number of factors, but the single biggest disparity seems to be simple. When the coronavirus threat became clear, South Korea vigorously ramped up its testing efforts and the United States did not.

“There is no question whatsoever that South Korea was early in testing,” said Dr. Kavita Patel, Yahoo News medical contributor, in an email. “By the time South Korea reported 204 confirmed cases on Feb. 21, the country had conducted a total of 16,400 tests. By the time the U.S. had 207 confirmed cases on March 4, it had performed 1,597 tests, 10 times fewer.”

With the U.S. federal government putting much of the testing responsibilities in the hands of states, the country’s response has been uneven and inefficient. Things likely won’t get better as some states start reopening for business.

It could be a while before this sight reaches the United States. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Facing a much better virus outlook, South Korea is also reopening many aspects of citizen life, from sports to schools. One reason experts are more confident in the country not facing another wave of infections is a system of tracking possible cases, in addition to testing.

“Through a combination of robust testing, technology, and aggressive contact tracing they have succeeded where the U.S. has failed miserably,” said John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “Currently, they have very few new cases and, if they continue with their plans, they should be able to keep this problem in check.”

Contact tracing takes the form of the government using surveillance data and interviews to identify people who have been exposed to the virus. The system in practice, from The Atlantic:

On a Saturday in April, a 58-year-old man was diagnosed with the coronavirus. Surveillance data showed that he had voted in the election and visited several restaurants in previous days. Within 48 hours, South Korea had identified—and, in some cases, interviewed—more than 1,000 people who had potentially come into contact with him. All of them were instructed to self-isolate, thus cordoning off the virus’s spread. By the end of the month, no new clusters appeared in the Korean infection data.

It’s hard to imagine a similar system being politically and practically feasible in the United States.

Memories of a past outbreak fuel South Korea’s response

One reason why the tracking system is more accepted in South Korea is that the country remembers what happened when it wasn’t around.

In 2015, an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) spread to more than a dozen hospitals and wreaked havoc on the country’s medical system. Only a reported 36 deaths were identified by the WHO from the outbreak, but it was enough for the country to push for better containment practices.

“It’s not that South Korea was so much better, but that they were prepared because they were deeply affected by the 2015 MERS outbreak, which had a huge fatality rate,” Patel said.

By contrast, President Donald Trump famously disbanded the National Security Council unit created for pandemic preparation in 2018. The unit was created in response to the 2014 Ebola scare.

When will MLB games return to the U.S.?

Despite receiving political pressure to restart the league, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has remained consistent in pledging not to return until the public health situation improves to the point that players are safe.

If that is what the league is really waiting for, it’s difficult to picture a feasible short-term solution, especially when considering how far the country is from the best example we have for restarting a league.

Swartzberg pointed to robust testing and contact tracing, adequate personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and national leadership guided by science as necessary for the country to get onto the track that brought South Korea to this point.

However, Swartzberg did support the idea of playing games without fans and keeping players in isolation, which has been repeatedly floated by various leagues trying to figure out plans to return. Dr. Anthony Fauci has also endorsed the idea as a way to responsibly return to action.

Even with those precautions, proposed bubble leagues are obviously not without drawbacks. Asking players to isolate for months lest their work come to a halt could be a hard sell.

There’s also the question of the resources it would take up. The NBA has reportedly estimated it would need 15,000 coronavirus tests to finish its season, which was a month from reaching the playoffs. MLB — a league with much larger rosters and a full season to play — would almost certainly need more tests, and taking them from even private labs would be morally questionable until the U.S. reaches its required testing capacity.

Still, such a structure might the only way forward.

“Sports are such an important part of the American fabric, so I believe we will find a way to bring games back,” Patel said. “More likely later in the year, since the end of summer is not that far away and we still don’t have a national decline in cases.”

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