COVID-19 situation ‘very dangerous,' says Korea's disease control chief

COVID-19 situation ‘very dangerous,’ says Korea’s disease control chief
Jeong Eun-kyeong, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency chief, speaks during a televised briefing Monday at the agency headquarters in Osong, North Chungcheong Province. (KDCA)The head of Korea’s disease control agency said Monday the state of COVID-19 outbreak here went from “low risk” to “high risk” over the first three weeks of November.

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong said told a televised briefing that “intensive care beds at Seoul hospitals were nearly full to the brink,” with other metrics worsening all across the country. While the situation was particularly worrying in Seoul, the outbreak was getting worse throughout the country.

In response to press inquiries, she said that Korea “may consider bringing back some of the lifted restrictions,” after discussions within the relevant government agencies.

By Sunday at midnight, 907 COVID-19 patients around the country weren’t able to get into the hospital for more than a day — 137 of them waited four days or longer. The number of patients waiting for a bed a day earlier was 804.

Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, told reporters in a closed-door briefing, also held Monday, that the demands for hospital care were “growing more rapidly than previously anticipated.” In announcing the Nov. 1 return to normal, the ministry had said the health care system could handle around 5,000 cases being found each day.

He said steps were being taken to cut the length of hospital stay of COVID-19 patients and maximize turnover of beds. Hospitals will be asked to assess the “appropriateness of hospitalization” of their intensive care patients, he said, and bump some of them down to “stepdown” beds providing less acute care or discharge them to recover from home.

Another senior ministry official, Park Hyang. said in the same briefing the success of Korea’s plan to exit pandemic measures “depended on a robust home treatment scheme.”

“To be able to return to normal, the single most critical factor is to allow more patients to be cared for at home,” Park said.

During Nov. 17’s press briefing, the ministry and Seoul municipal officials had said a lack of bed availability may force a wider range of patients to stay home to recover, instead of under treatment at medical institutions. Now it’s mostly patients under 70 years with mild or no symptoms at the time of diagnosis.

On the other hand, restrictions placed on businesses would be eased to a greater extent. Son said talks were underway to exempt indoor gyms from requiring its visitors to submit proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test result.

The administration’s COVID-19 response team has said that as Korea abandons its suppression strategy, trends of hospital admissions and deaths, rather than incidences of new infections, will be the barometer in gauging the severity of the pandemic here.

Speaking with Koreans about the country’s COVID-19 plan during Sunday’s town hall event, President Moon Jae-in said the size of the surge seen now was “within the predicted bounds.”

Korea has had a streak of more than 3,000 daily cases over the past week. Moon explained that as the country opens up, “up to 6,000 to 10,000 cases were forecast to occur per day.”

The president added, however, that he was “worried about complacency setting in as vaccinations progress,” urging people to keep wearing masks.

He said that next week, at the end of four weeks of phase one of return to normal, the country would decide whether to move on to the next phase and lift restrictions even further. “But there is no guarantee we won’t go back to social distancing if intensive care patient surge overwhelms our hospitals,” he said.

He said due to his administration’s efforts such as the swift rollout of vaccine boosters, coupled with the expansion of intensive care supply, he was convinced “things will work out.”

A total of 1.8 million people ages 50 and above, clinically vulnerable people, recipients of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine and front-line workers have so far gotten a booster vaccination in Korea. Close to 79 percent of the 51 million population is fully vaccinated.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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