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Korea grapples with hospital bed crisis

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Medical workers at Seoul Medical Center in Jungnang District, Seoul, monitor coronavirus patients hospitalized in intensive care units, Nov. 15. Yonhap
Medical workers at Seoul Medical Center in Jungnang District, Seoul, monitor coronavirus patients hospitalized in intensive care units, Nov. 15. Yonhap

KDCA assesses COVID-19 risk level in the capital area as 'very high'

By Lee Hyo-jin

Korea is grappling with a shortage of hospital beds for coronavirus patients due to a surge in the numbers of daily new infections and critically ill patients amid the government's gradual phase-out of social distancing measures.

Hospital beds are filling up rapidly especially in Seoul and the surrounding metropolitan area, forcing patients to wait for more than a day for hospitalization.

According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, as of Sunday, 907 patients in the greater capital area had been waiting for more than one day, the highest number since the outbreak of the pandemic here.

Of them, more than half, or 466 patients, were aged 70 or older, while 440 patients had underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes. One patient was a pregnant woman.

Among them, 137 people had been waiting for more than four days to be hospitalized.

In November, six people have died while waiting, according to the ministry.

Intensive care unit (ICU) beds available for critically ill patients are also running out at a rapid pace.

As of 5 p.m., Sunday, the ICU bed occupancy rate in Seoul stood at 83 percent, while 80 percent were full both in Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, exceeding the 75-percent threshold set by the government for halting its "Living with COVID-19" plan intended to allow a "return to normalcy." Nationwide, 69.5 percent of beds were occupied.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) assessed the risk level of the current virus situation as "very high" in the greater Seoul area, which is the highest level in its five-tier evaluation system. The risk levels in regions outside the capital area were all either "medium" or "high."

"The ICU bed occupancy rate in the capital area has almost reached its limit, and other quarantine metrics, such as the number of daily infection cases and the reproduction number (the number of people infected by a single patient) are also worsening," KDCA Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong said during a briefing Monday.

But Jeong said the government was not considering initiating a contingency plan, or an emergency brake on the "Living with COVID-19" strategy separately for the capital region.

The KDCA had previously said that an emergency evaluation would be conducted if the weekly risk level was concluded as "high" or "very high," in order to decide whether to activate the contingency plan.

Jeong said that the government will focus on the swift rollout of booster shots and tightening quarantine measures in nursing homes and other high risk facilities, as well as enabling the "efficient use" of hospital beds.

A medical staff member works in an intensive care unit for coronavirus patients at a hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, Nov. 15. Yonhap
A medical staff member works in an intensive care unit for coronavirus patients at a hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, Nov. 15. Yonhap

In order better to respond to the bed shortage in the capital area, the health ministry has recently introduced plans to transfer critically ill patients from Seoul to surrounding regions.

The ministry said that it would use helicopters and ambulances equipped with ventilators to transfer patients in the southern part of Gyeonggi Province to neighboring Chungcheong Province, and those in the eastern part of Gyeonggi Province to Gangwon Province.

But medical experts pointed out that such a plan may not be feasible.

"It's a risky idea. It is extremely difficult to transfer patients in critical condition across regions, as they require a ventilator immediately upon hospitalization. Decisions to transfer such patients are made in very exceptional cases," said Chon Eun-mi, a respiratory disease professor at Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital.

The uphill battle to secure additional hospital beds is expected to continue as the coronavirus situation is showing no signs of abating.

The KDCA reported 2,827 daily new infections for Sunday, including 2,806 local transmissions, the largest tally for a Sunday since the pandemic outbreak. The number of severely ill patients stood at 515.

Meanwhile, under the government's first step in its three-phase plan to "return to normalcy," all kindergartens and schools resumed full-scale in-person classes from Monday, despite lingering concerns over group infections at schools.

Students at an elementary school in Gwangju head to class, Monday, the first day of the full-scale resumption of in-person classes nationwide. Yonhap
Students at an elementary school in Gwangju head to class, Monday, the first day of the full-scale resumption of in-person classes nationwide. Yonhap
Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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