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ICU beds reaching limit amid rapid increase in critical cases

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A health worker administers a COVID-19 test at a temporary testing center set up at Seoul Station, Friday. Yonhap
A health worker administers a COVID-19 test at a temporary testing center set up at Seoul Station, Friday. Yonhap

Critically ill patients hit all-time high of 617

By Jun Ji-hye

The country is facing a serious shortage of intensive care unit (ICU) beds for COVID-19 patients, as the number of critical cases has increased rapidly, exceeding the government's expectations, after the "Living with COVID-19" scheme was implemented at the start of this month to gradually phase out several coronavirus-related restrictions.

The number of critical cases has been increasing amid a highly elevated number of overall infections, including breakthrough cases involving those who tested positive even after having been fully vaccinated, especially among the elderly.

This is raising concerns over the possible collapse of the country's medical response system to the pandemic, with experts calling on the government to suspend the "Living with COVID-19" scheme and reinstate measures to reduce the rising number of new infections.

According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), Friday, the country added 3,901 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, including 3,882 local infections.

The daily caseloads have been hovering around 4,000 for three successive days after 3,938 cases were reported Wednesday and 4,115, the highest since the country saw the first virus case in January last year, were reported Tuesday.

Critically ill patients hit an all-time high of 617 also on Thursday, up by five from the previous high reported a day earlier. Among the 617 patients, those over the age of 60 accounted for 85.3 percent.

"The efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines for the elderly has been reduced due to the emergence of the more virulent and aggressive Delta variant," said Lee Jae-gab, a professor of infectious diseases at Hallym University Kangnam Sacred Heart Hospital. "Neither the government nor medical experts expected critical cases to increase so quickly."

A medical worker treats critically ill COVID-19 patients in an intensive care unit at Bagae Hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday. Yonhap
A medical worker treats critically ill COVID-19 patients in an intensive care unit at Bagae Hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday. Yonhap

With the rapid increase in critical cases, ICU beds are quickly being filled, with the total of occupied beds in the Seoul metropolitan area, which includes Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, reaching 84.5 percent as of 5 p.m. Thursday, the KDCA said, noting that just 108 beds remained available.

With hospital beds reaching capacity, the number of patients who were waiting to be hospitalized at home in the Seoul metropolitan area was tallied at 1,310, up 370 from the previous day.

Health authorities said, however, that it would not be easy to provide medical care to more ICU patients, saying each hospital's resources are extended to the maximum already.

"Physically increasing the amount of medical equipment and beds is not difficult, but the problem is a lack of professional medical personnel who can provide care in the ICU units," said Sohn Young-rae, spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

The authorities said that the government will instead secure more beds for semi-critical cases to reduce the burden on the ICU units and that it will speed up the administration of booster vaccines for senior citizens.

Experts agreed with the need for the prompt administering of booster shots, but also asked the government to strengthen social distancing measures again.

"Considering that the fatality rate has also increased recently, the government should not consider moving on to the next stage of the Living with COVID-19 scheme, but consider enhancing antivirus measures and not misjudge the situation," said Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University Guro Hospital.


Jun Ji-hye jjh@koreatimes.co.kr


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