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Authorities on alert over possible bed shortage as COVID-19 cases spike

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A medical worker cool the heat in front of a cooler at a COVID-19 testing center in Gwangju, Thursday. Yonhap
A medical worker cool the heat in front of a cooler at a COVID-19 testing center in Gwangju, Thursday. Yonhap

Korea hits new record high of 1,842 daily virus cases

By Jun Ji-hye

The health authorities are bracing for a possible shortage of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients as the country's daily new virus cases have been surging on a daily basis.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 1,842 more COVID-19 infections for Wednesday, including 1,533 local ones, raising the total caseload to 184,103.

The latest numbers were the highest since the country saw its first case of the coronavirus in January last year, breaking the previous record of 1,784 reported Tuesday

Korea has yet to face a shortage of intensive care unit (ICU) beds for seriously ill patients, but makeshift treatment centers for patients with minor symptoms are almost full in some regions amid the ongoing fourth wave of infections.

Experts warned against a possible shortage of hospital beds and medical workers amid the continuous spike in cases.

"If the fourth wave of infections is prolonged, the numbers of seriously ill patients and deaths will increase together," said Cheon Eun-mi, a pulmonologist at Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital.

According to the KDCA, the bed utilization rate at hospitals specifically designated to treat COVID-19 patients nationwide stood at 66.3 percent as of Tuesday, with 2,582 beds still available. About 500 out of 806 ICU beds for seriously ill patients across the country are also still available.

The utilization rate at treatment centers run by central and local administrations came to 64 percent, the KDCA said, noting that 4,901 more patients with minor symptoms can still enter those centers.

But treatment centers in some regions are almost full, with the rate for centers in the South and North Chungcheong provinces standing at 89.3 percent. In Busan and Gangwon Province, the rates were 84.3 percent and 72 percent, respectively.

The current situation is unfolding differently, compared to when the country experienced previous waves of infections and faced a serious ICU bed shortage. This is because the fourth wave is infecting more younger people who have yet to be vaccinated, while a considerable number of those over the age of 60, who were more vulnerable to the virus, have received their shots in the country's vaccination program that began at the end of February.

The authorities warned that the number of seriously ill patients could increase among young people if the current trend continues.

"As of Tuesday, one in 100 patients under the age of 60 has been seriously ill for the past three weeks, with the number of deaths in that age group having nearly doubled during that period," a KDCA official said.

Medical workers conduct COVID-19 testing at a temporary testing center installed at an elementary school in Daejeon, Thursday. Yonhap
Medical workers conduct COVID-19 testing at a temporary testing center installed at an elementary school in Daejeon, Thursday. Yonhap

The health authorities are also concerned over a decrease in the amount of blood reserves as the number of individuals and organizations who participate in blood donations has fallen amid the pandemic.

"Even now, many patients at hospitals across the country rely on blood donations," Lee Ki-il from the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters said during a briefing, Wednesday. "Blood donation to save people's lives should continue. The Korean Red Cross and a blood banks have taken various measures such as an advance reservation system for safe blood donations."

In a bid to fight the fourth wave of infections, the government is expected to maintain Level 4 social distancing measures in the Seoul metropolitan area and impose additional antivirus measures, such as a restriction on the number of people allowed to attend gatherings in regions outside Seoul.

The decision is expected to be announced this weekend as the current rules expire Sunday.

Vaccinations for people aged between 55 and 59 will begin Monday with Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.


Jun Ji-hye jjh@koreatimes.co.kr


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