The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition hit a record high of 124 on Wednesday, increasing fears over a possible shortage of hospital beds and a spike in fatalities.
The country reported 267 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday -- 253 locally transmitted and 14 imported -- pushing the total caseload to 20,449, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
South Korea’s daily new COVID-19 case count stayed below 300 for a fourth consecutive day Wednesday, as the country tightened social distancing rules amid a resurgence of the coronavirus in the Seoul metropolitan area.
“As a result of people’s active participation in (the government’s) quarantine efforts, an explosive surge in cases is being prevented,” Jung Eun-kyeong, the KCDC director, said at a briefing Wednesday, adding that this week is crucial in stabilizing the second wave of infections.
However, health authorities are on high alert over surges in the number of patients with severe cases or unclear infection routes, as well as the sporadic virus outbreaks popping up across the country.
The number of COVID-19 patients in serious or critical condition was 124 as of midnight Wednesday, up 20 from a day earlier. This marks a sharp rise from only nine people on Aug. 18. Authorities expect the figure to further rise this week.
Most of those in serious or critical condition were in their 60s or over, who are known to be more vulnerable to the virus. Some 29.8 percent were in their 80s or over, 38.1 percent in their 70s, 19 percent in their 60s, 9.5 percent in their 50s and 3.6 percent in their 40s, according to the KCDC.
A shortage of hospital beds is emerging as a real problem, with only 43 hospital beds available for critically ill patients nationwide. An ongoing walkout by doctors protesting the government’s medical workforce reform plan has not helped.
As of Tuesday, only nine hospital beds were left for critically ill patients in the Seoul metropolitan area, while no beds were available in Gwangju, North or South Jeolla provinces, Daejeon, South Chungcheong Province or Gangwon Province.
Vice Health and Welfare Minister Kim Gang-lip said Wednesday that the government plans to invest 105 billion won ($88.47 million) in medical institutions to secure 110 more hospital beds for critically ill COVID-19 patients within this month and 103 more by the end of this year. It will also designate hospitals for those with severe cases and dispatch military medical professionals there.
Adding to concerns that the virus is silently spreading undetected in communities, transmission routes for 23 percent of the new cases reported from Aug. 20-Sept. 2 were unidentified, according to the KCDC.
COVID-19 cases linked to the Sarang Jeil Church and to a massive rally held in central Seoul on Aug. 15, which are at the center of the resurgence of COVID-19 here, continue to increase.
A total of 1,117 cases had been traced to the Seoul-based church as of Wednesday at noon, up 34 from the previous day. The number of cases traced to the rally rose 22 to 441.
Of locally transmitted cases, 187, the vast majority, were registered in Greater Seoul -- 98 in Seoul, 10 in neighboring Incheon and 79 in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the capital.
The country also saw sporadic clusters of infections at churches, offices, hospitals, fitness centers and apartment complexes.
Outside the Seoul area, 14 new cases were reported in Daejeon, 13 in Daegu, 10 each in Incheon and Gwangju, seven each in South Chungcheong Province and Busan, five in Ulsan, three each in South Jeolla Province and North Gyeongsang Province, two in Gangwon Province and one each in North Chungcheong Province and on Jeju Island.
Fears over the spread of the coronavirus led to a closure of a record-breaking 8,208 schools across the country as of Wednesday, up 156 from a day earlier, according to the Ministry of Education.
Of the 14 imported cases, 11 were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, with the other three detected during the quarantine screening process at the border. Seven cases originated in the United States, six cases in Asia and one case in Europe. Six of the newly diagnosed people were foreign nationals.
So far, 15,356 people, or 75.09 percent, have been released from quarantine upon making full recoveries, up 158 from a day earlier. Some 4,767 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine.
Two more people died of the coronavirus, bringing the death toll to 326. The overall fatality rate amounted to 1.59 percent.
The country has carried out 1,980,295 tests since Jan. 3, with 56,748 people awaiting results as of Wednesday.