S.Korea scrambles to add hospital beds as COVID-19 resurgence strains system

SEOUL, Sept 3- South Korea, scrambling to control a second wave of COVID-19, vowed on Thursday to double its critical-care hospital beds amid a severe shortage, highlighting the strain of the pandemic on even well-equipped countries. Fewer than 10 intensive-care beds were available in the greater Seoul area, a metropolis of 26 million people, as of Tuesday, health…

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL, Sept 3 (Reuters) – South Korea, scrambling to controla second wave of COVID-19, vowed on Thursday to double itscritical-care hospital beds amid a severe shortage, highlightingthe strain of the pandemic on even well-equipped countries.

The spike in serious cases, as older people make up anincreasing proportion of patients amid a broader resurgence,marks a sharp turn for a country that was seen as successful incrushing one of the worst early outbreaks of the new coronavirusoutside China.

Fewer than 10 intensive-care beds were available in thegreater Seoul area, a metropolis of 26 million people, as ofTuesday, health authorities said. Officials do not give dailynumbers, which can fluctuate widely.

The Health Ministry said it will spend 100 billion won ($84million) to acquire 500 beds for severely ill patientsnationwide by the middle of next year, aiming to secure at least110 by the end of the month.

“We are also exerting our full efforts to enable stabletreatment for the patients,” the ministry’s director-general forpublic health policy, Yoon Tae-ho, told a news briefing.

South Korea has 511 critical-care beds, mostly at publichospitals in Seoul and surrounding regions, but many of thoseare being used by less serious cases or patients suffering fromother ailments.

As of Thursday, 154 COVID-19 patients were in serious orcritical condition, up from 123 on a day before. The country hadjust 12 such cases before the second-wave began to intensify twoweeks ago, stemming from an outbreak among members of a churchwho attended a political rally.

South Korea was caught unprepared for the resurgence despiteits relatively successful response to the initial epidemic, saidChoi Jae-wook, a senior member of the Korean MedicalAssociation.

“The government appears to have grown complacent after thedaily rate of infections fell to the low double digits,” saidChoi, who teaches preventive medicine at Korea University. “Theydidn’t take proper steps to address bed shortages even afterthey struggled with it early this year.”

The crisis is growing more acute as more than 40% of thecountry’s new coronavirus victims are 60 or older, up from 20% amonth ago, health authorities said.

A coalition of South Korean doctors and pharmacists groupshas warned that more intensive-care beds and trained nurses wereneeded in the Seoul area.

“Now our deepest concerns are coming true,” the coalitionsaid in a statement last week.

Woo Seoc-kyun, who steers the coalition, said the governmentplan to arrange more beds in public hospitals would help addresslong-term needs but would fall short of curbing the currentspread.

The government managed to hospitalise all the new casesafter some institutes provided beds, while some patients weretransferred to general wards and others died, said LeeChang-joon, a ministry official in charge of hospital bedmanagement.

Less-sick patients are being transferred from 13 dorm-like”life treatment centres”, which can accommodate 3,200 people.Three more facilities are planned, adding capacity for 1,000more people.

South Korea has among the most hospital beds per personamong Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developmentcountries, while it is near the OECD average for intensive-carebeds.

The country has been gripped in recent weeks by ongoingstrikes by thousands of doctors and medical students overgovernment healthcare reform plans, although officials said thishas had little effect on the shortage of critical-care bedsbecause it was idling few beds and military medics and volunteernurses were staffing the facilities.

South Korea’s daily reported infections dropped below 200for the first time in more than two weeks on Thursday, even asmore serious cases continued to rise. The country has reported atotal of 20,644 cases with 329 COVID-19 deaths.(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Editing by WilliamMallard)