Not again: South Korea ‘running out of hospital beds’ as second coronavirus wave spreads

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The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 308 new cases as of midnight Friday, the majority of them in the capital Seoul and surrounding areas. Outbreaks have continued to erupt at churches, offices, nursing homes and medical facilities, even after officials tightened social-distancing rules.

Only about 15 beds are immediately available in the Seoul area for patients in critical condition

Yoon Tae-ho

The spike in cases has depleted hospital facilities, with the health ministry reporting that just 4.5 percent of beds in greater Seoul were available for critical cases as of last night, down from 22 percent a week earlier.

Yoon Tae-ho, director general for public health policy at the health ministry, said: “Only about 15 beds are immediately available in the greater Seoul area for patients in critical condition as there were numerous patients who were in a serious condition and needed to be hospitalised.

“But we should have a little more room shortly because more people are being released.”

The government has taken the unprecedented step of restricting the operation of restaurants and cafes in the Seoul area in a bid to prevent a second wave of infections.

From tomorrow, onsite dining at restaurants, pubs and bakeries across the capital will be banned after 9pm while coffee shops, some of which have been identified as hotspots, are restricted to takeout and delivery only. The restrictions will initially be imposed for a week.

Churches, nightclubs, gyms and most schools in the area are already closed and masks are mandatory in public places.

KCDC officials said more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases had been traced to the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, which is at the centre of the new wave of infections.

The church outbreak led to at least 25 new clusters, and more than 300 people who joined an anti-government protest this month together with church members have tested positive so far.

The resurgence in cases has brought the country’s total reported COVID-19 cases to 19,400, including 321 deaths.

South Korea’s second wave of infections has been complicated by an ongoing strike of almost 16,000 intern and resident doctors.

The medics walked out on August 21 in a dispute over the Seoul’s plans to boost the number of doctors to better deal with health crises like the coronavirus.

The Health Ministry earlier this week filed a police complaint against at least 10 doctors and extended a back-to-work order for the doctors, who are the backbone of healthcare services in emergency rooms and intensive care units.

The striking doctors have volunteered at temporary testing centres to help with the outbreak, but major hospitals have reported delays and disruptions since their walkout.

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Mr Yoon said: “Doctors should be by the side of patients as we face the possibility of a nationwide transmission of COVID-19.

“We are standing on the last line of defence to calm the spread in the Seoul metropolitan area, and if we fail at it, the only option we have left is to step up distancing rules to the highest level.”

More than 24.61 million people have now been infected by coronavirus around the world and the global death toll stands at 832,804.

Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in China last December.

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