Doctors, health workers volunteer to help mitigate coronavirus crisis in Daegu, N. Gyeongsang

Posted on : 2020-02-27 18:47 KST Modified on : 2020-02-27 18:47 KST
Around 250 physicians respond to city’s call for medical volunteers
Public health doctors Kim Hyeong-gap (left) and Song Myeong-je snap selfies in Daegu, where they have volunteered to serve as emergency medical workers as the city struggles to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus. (provided by Kim and Song)
Public health doctors Kim Hyeong-gap (left) and Song Myeong-je snap selfies in Daegu, where they have volunteered to serve as emergency medical workers as the city struggles to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus. (provided by Kim and Song)

#1. Kim Hyeong-gap, a 29-year-old public health doctor working at the Ongryong health center in Gwangyang, South Jeolla Province, arrived in Daegu at 6 am on Feb. 26 along with another public health doctor from the region. Both of them had volunteered to perform treatment in the Daegu area to help out their fellow public health doctors, who are struggling to cope with treating the rapidly increasing number of novel coronavirus infections (COVID-19); both were sent to Daegu that day as their numbers came up. Concerned family members and friends asked them, “Do you really have to go?” They replied as though it were just another transfer: “It’s just what was decided.”

They will be members of a mobile testing team: over the next two weeks, they will be donning protective gear and joining 89 other physicians from other regions to visit the homes of suspected COVID-19 patients currently self-quarantined in Daegu to take samples. “In addition to medical workers, prevention gear like masks, goggles, and suits are apparently running out quickly in Daegu. That’s why I made up my mind that I had to go quickly.”

#2. Lee Sang-gu, chairperson of the Daegu Medical Association (DMA), has tackled treatment of the infections head on, sending a Feb. 25 appeal to DMA’s 5,700 members under the title “A Call to Action to My Colleagues.” In his message, he wrote that “the emergency rooms that should be seeing severe patients whose lives are in danger are being closed, and the screening clinics are being deluged by fear-stricken members of the public. People cannot be diagnosed promptly because of the severe shortage of medical workers, and even patients with confirmed diagnoses are isolating themselves at home rather than undergoing hospitalization due to the lack of available hospital beds.” He went on to urge the members to “come at once to the screening clinics, to Daegu Medical Center, to the quarantine hospitals, and to the emergency rooms.”

The appeal drew a whole-hearted response from physicians throughout South Korea. According to a statement from DMA on Feb. 26, a total of 250 physicians as of 2 pm that day -- including 231 from Daegu as well as 10 from Gwangju, three from North Gyeongsang Province, two from South Gyeongsang Province, two from Jeonju, one from Incheon, and one from Seoul -- had stepped aside from their regular jobs and volunteered to offer their services. That same day, they were sent to work at Daegu Medical Center and the screening clinics and quarantine hospitals. The government Central Disaster Safety Countermeasures Headquarters reported that a total of 100 nurses, 32 nurse’s aides, 22 clinical pathologists, and 40 administrative workers had been sent in for medical service in Daegu as of the morning of Feb. 25.

As of the morning of Feb. 27, the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients in the Daegu/North Gyeongsang area has passed the 1,000 mark at 1,338, comprising the majority of the country’s 1,595 confirmed patients. The growing fears have prompted not only public health doctors but also doctors, nurses, and clinical pathologists with clinics all over South Korea to volunteer on the ground to treat infections in Daegu.

The same day saw the passing of a 73-year-old man who had been undergoing treatment for COVID-19 at Keimyung University Daegu Dongsan Hospital -- the 12th death associated with the virus to date. The anxiety has only escalated after news that Lee Seung-ho, the assistant of the city’s deputy mayor for economic affairs, had also tested positive on Feb. 25. The city has closed down its City Hall annex and is currently performing sterilization measures.

Growing movement of showing solidarity with Daegu and N. Gyeongsang Province

But at the same time, there has also been a growing movement of solidarity with the aim of allaying the sense of isolation and fear in the Daegu/North Gyeongsang area and filling the immediate gap with the shortage of medical personnel. Song Myeong-je, a 33-year-old public health doctor working at the Anseong health center’s screening clinic in Gyeonggi Province, volunteered to provide treatment in Daegu on Feb. 24. He is to be assigned to a Daegu screening clinic on Mar. 11.

“Daegu is going through a difficult time right now, and while I agreed to I ought to hurry up and help out, my mother was crying about it,” Song said.

“All I could tell her was that it’s okay, that the doctors are safest of all,” he added.

Song, who is awaiting discharge as a public health doctor in April, explained, “I helped to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading further in Daegu before my discharge.” These days, he has been making use of his experience five years ago during the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak, when he wore protective gear to provide treatment at an emergency room screening clinic while a resident at Myongji Hospital in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province.

“Watching this situation develop, I’ve once again sensed the need for an adequate number of medical staff to care for patients on the ground,” he said.

Cho Jung-hyeon, a 29-year-old public health doctor who is scheduled for deployment to Daegu on Mar. 25, said, “What I’ve heard from the public health doctors who have gone to Daegu ahead of me is that they are tending to patients one after the other without any time to go to the restroom, since that would require taking off and putting back on their Level D protective gear.”

“The people visiting the screening clinic with suspected symptoms are apparently more nervous and worried than in other regions,” he added. “I volunteered because I thought about how much worse things could get in Daegu.”

By Kim Min-je, Park Su-ji, and Kang Jae-gu, staff reporters, and Kim Il-woo, Daegu correspondent

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