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As bed shortage looms, National Medical Center proposes home care for mild COVID-19

Dr. Jung Ki-hyun (left) and Dr. Oh Myoung-don of the National Medical Center speak to reporters during Tuesday`s conference at a central Seoul venue. (Yonhap)
Dr. Jung Ki-hyun (left) and Dr. Oh Myoung-don of the National Medical Center speak to reporters during Tuesday`s conference at a central Seoul venue. (Yonhap)

As resurgence in Seoul rapidly fills hospital beds, public doctors at the National Medical Center on Tuesday proposed home care as an option for mildly sick patients with COVID-19.

Seoul saw a near-record rise in daily new infections of 132 on Tuesday, continuing the weeklong streak of summer wave numbers. Health care facilities, especially intensive care units, are once again being strained to their limit in the capital area, the NMC doctors warned.

There are 125 critical care beds that can accommodate coronavirus patients in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province combined, of which only 25 were available as of Monday. The NMC estimates the remaining vacant beds could be filled in about a week’s time based on the current incidence rate.

“Looking at our analysis of 3,060 cases from the initial wave, we suspect at least 46 patients out of all patients diagnosed over the past two weeks could fall severely ill,” said preventive medicine specialist Dr. Ju Young-su, who serves as the NMC’s director of central coordination and planning.

People aged 60 or older, who are at higher risk of developing serious complications from the infection, continue to account for over 20 percent of all recently emerging cases, he said. Among 2,239 patients confirmed in the last 14 days, 4.7 percent were in their 80s or above, with 8.4 percent in their 70s, 14.6 percent in their 60s and 16.5 percent in their 50s.

To expand bed capacity, the NMC suggested home care might be a possibility for patients who are at reduced risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The government granted at-home care for patients experiencing mild to no symptoms last month, but the protocols for this are still to come. One of the considerations is how to isolate patients from the people that they live with to prevent transmission within households.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Oh Myoung-don, who heads the NMC’s committee for clinical management of emerging infectious diseases, said minimally ill patients ending up with complications or long-term effects from COVID-19 was “not impossible, but highly unlikely.”

Vice Minister of Health Kang Do-tae has warned even younger patients could face severe COVID-19 during a meeting of the government’s headquarters for coronavirus response the previous day.

“Under a different circumstances, all patients of varying ranges of symptoms would have been admitted for professional care. But this is a pandemic we are facing. We may have to screen patients so care is provided to those who need it most,” Oh said.

Ju added in augmenting critical care capacity, training health care personnel for the role was just as urgently needed as beds or other equipment.

“For each patient on a ventilator, we need at least two or three medical staffers trained in critical care,” he said, urging more programs to offer health care providers with the relevant training.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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