S. Korea’s number of COVID-19 patients in critical condition surpasses 100 for first time

Posted on : 2020-09-02 18:27 KST Modified on : 2020-09-02 18:27 KST
Cumulative caseload passes 20,000
A screening center in Seoul’s Jungnang District on Sept. 1. (Yonhap News)
A screening center in Seoul’s Jungnang District on Sept. 1. (Yonhap News)

The number of South Korea’s COVID-19 patients classified as being in severe or critical condition reached three digits for the first time ever, raising serious concerns about the ability to acquire sickbeds for severely affected patients. Standing at 104, the number of severe and critical patients has more than doubled since last week, with only 43 beds available nationwide for the immediate hospitalization of severely ill patients. The cumulative total of confirmed cases in South Korea passed 20,000 on Sept. 1.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) announced on Sept. 1 that the number of severe and critical patients had reached 104, an increase of 25 from the day before. The total had nearly tripled from 37 just a week earlier on Aug. 25. Even during the initial major outbreak in February and April amid a cluster infection associated with the Shincheonji religious sect in Daegu, the number of severe and critical patients never reached 100 on any single day, with the largest number recorded on Mar. 23 at 93.

A major factor in the sharp increase in severe and critical patients -- despite the comparatively lower number of total infections -- is due to a significant rise in the number of elderly patients, especially from churches and a Liberation Day demonstration in Seoul. An examination of the age distribution for cases associated with Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul’s Seongbuk District, which has accounted for the largest infection cluster in recent weeks, shows 437 of the cumulative total of 1,083 to be aged 60 and over, or more than 40%. Patients aged 60 and above also accounted for the vast majority of all severe and critical cases at 86, or 82.6%.

Disease control authorities are predicting the number of severe and critical patients will continue to rise through this week. KCDC Deputy Director Kwon Jun-wook said, “The time between the confirmation of a patient’s diagnosis and their classification as severe or critical is typically believed to be between a week and 10 days, while the difference in terms of an increase in the number of deaths becomes visible after around a month.”

“Around Aug. 26, there were over 400 new cases [in a single day], so there’s a very strong chance the number of severe and critical patients will continue to rise through this Sunday,” he predicted.

Only 43 immediately available sickbeds in entire country; lack of staff due to strike

An even bigger problem is the acute lack of sickbeds to accommodate severe patients. As of Aug. 31, there were just nine “immediately available” beds for severe patients in the entire Seoul Capital Area (SCA). Nationally, the number stands at a mere 43. An immediately available sickbed is a hospital bed for coronavirus patients that is already staffed and equipped so that patients can be hospitalized immediately. Yoon Tae-ho, general coordinator for the Central Disaster Management Headquarters (CDMH), said, “Based on discussions with tertiary hospitals, we have acquired an additional 43 sickbeds since last week for the treatment of severe patients, and we are continuing to make effects to boost the number, including measures to compensate hospitals for the immediate losses they face in acquiring additional sickbeds.”

At the same time, Yoon commented that there had been “significant difficulties maintaining the level of staff necessary to manage the severe patient beds due to the residents’ boycott.”

“If we had more staff, we’d be able to acquire and operate more sickbeds,” he explained.

A total of 235 new coronavirus cases were confirmed on Sept. 1, bringing the cumulative total to 20,182. Additional infection clusters were found in Seoul at Gwonneung Church in the Yeongdeungpo District and at a sports facility in the Dobong District, and in Gyeonggi Province at a music academy in Siheung, the volunteer group Nanum Nuriteo in Gwangmyeong, and Saebit Church in Yongin.

Kwon Jun-wook said, “We aren’t seeing a steep decline [in the number of new confirmed cases].”

“We’re standing at the third and most dangerous crossroads, and we can’t say for certain right now whether this is just the prelude or we’re in the thick of it,” he added.

Physicians stress importance of early administration of ECMO for elderly patients

Meanwhile, the Korean Society for Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery shared a message to public authorities stressing the importance of “relatively early administration” of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) for senior citizen patients in critical condition and calling for the establishment of an intensive care units and systems to enable this.

“Administration of ECMO to 50 patients who would not have survived with existing treatments resulted in some hopeful clinical findings, with 34 of them (68%) improving enough that the ECMO could be removed and 32 of them (64%) surviving,” the society reported.

By Park Da-hae and Choi Won-hyung, staff reporters

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

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