Korean healthcare workers say hospitals are being immobilized by COVID-19

Posted on : 2022-03-24 16:55 KST Modified on : 2022-03-24 16:55 KST
Members of one of Korea’s largest medical workers’ unions say the nation’s healthcare system is on the brink of collapse
Members of the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union hold a press conference in the vicinity of the office of the presidential transition team in Seoul’s Tongui neighborhood at 11 am on March 23. (Seo Hye-mi/The Hankyoreh)
Members of the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union hold a press conference in the vicinity of the office of the presidential transition team in Seoul’s Tongui neighborhood at 11 am on March 23. (Seo Hye-mi/The Hankyoreh)

As the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases skyrockets in Korea, there has been an outcry over an effective collapse of the healthcare system due to infections among both hospitalized patients and medical staff.

The Korean Health and Medical Workers' Union (KHMU) held a press conference on Wednesday near the Financial Supervisory Service Training Institute, where the office of the presidential transition committee is located in central Seoul’s Jongno District, where they called for emergency measures to prevent the collapse of the medical system.

The KHMU claims that between Monday and Tuesday, around 5%-6% of all staff at medical institutions were isolating after receiving a confirmed COVID diagnosis.

“Fourteen of the total 31 staff have come down with COVID in one ward, and there was a mass outbreak of 17 people including patient caregivers in another,” said Lee Cheol-jong, director of the union’s policy division at its Wonju Yonsei Medical Center chapter. “Twenty to 30 staff members are becoming infected every day, with as many as 170 catching COVID in a single week.”

Healthcare workers point out the large discrepancy between government reports on hospital bed utilization rates and the situation on the ground. For several days the government has claimed that just over 60% of beds for severe patients are currently occupied, but while there may be beds to spare, staff numbers are unable to keep up.

Busan Medical Center, a dedicated COVID-19 hospital, currently has an average of 170-200 COVID patients across 300 or so hospital beds.

“More than 60%-70% of the patients in the COVID ward are severely ill, either suffering from mental health issues, dementia or bedsores, or in long-term care, bedridden, or requiring oxygen or dialysis,” said radiologist Jeong Ji-hwan, who heads the union’s chapter at the Busan Medical Center. “There are many severe patients who require care, but we are short on staff, so most nurses are unable to even order food during working hours because they don’t have time to eat.”

Healthcare workers have criticized the government’s policy of shortening the isolation period for infected workers to 3-5 days in lieu of bringing in reinforcements.

“There isn’t enough staff, so they are telling us to isolate for just three days before coming back to look after patients, but nurses aren’t machines. We are people too,” said Bae Na-yeong, a nurse who runs the union’s chapter at Kyung Hee University Hospital at Gangdong.

By Seo Hye-mi, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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