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[Editorial] COVID crisis, again

Korea faces virus resurgence, shortage of ICU beds after lifting restrictions

“Living with COVID-19” has turned out to be more painful than the government forecast, with related figures reaching a precarious level. Unless proper measures are taken in time, the spread of the coronavirus is feared to spiral out of control.

Few want to stop the gradual return to pre-pandemic life under the state-guided “living with COVID-19” scheme, but there are signs the nationwide easing of antivirus restrictions on Nov. 1 has caused serious problems.

The Korean government is now facing accusations that it eased restrictions “too fast” and “too widely,” with the country not fully prepared to get back to normal at every social and economic level.

Despite the high full vaccination rate nationwide -- 78.9 percent -- the country’s new coronavirus cases stood at 3,120 on Sunday, staying above 3,000 for the fifth consecutive day. The country’s daily cases have stayed in the quadruple digits since July 7.

More worrisome is that an average of 500 critical cases puts a strain on the already severe shortage of hospital beds for the critically ill patients. More than three-quarters of all intensive care beds are filled in the capital region, with the figure for intensive care beds in Seoul already surpassing 80 percent.

As signs point to further disruptions, the government came up with a set of steps to alleviate the shortage of beds Friday, adding four more designated hospitals and operating an integrated network of hospitals connecting the metropolitan and surrounding regions.

But the measures are largely aimed at providing a short-term reprieve for the system, rather than building up the long-term additional medical infrastructure hospitals and experts say they need. Given the shortage of medical staff and facilities, an integrated operation of hospital beds involving the transfer of patients on ventilators to hospitals within a one-hour distance could increase risks.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Friday that the country could stop the process of returning to normalcy if the current crisis cannot be overcome, adding that the government would improve its system of hospital bed management.

But when the government unveiled the “living with COVID-19” scheme on Aug. 20, it reassured the public that there would be enough beds to accommodate as many as 5,000 new cases per day. Why is the government only now taking steps to increase hospital capacity, when it promised to do so months ago?

Meanwhile, the country is seeing a large number of breakthrough infections and critically ill cases among the elderly. This is regrettable as the government only belatedly shortened the six-month interval for the booster shot schedule to four to five months on Nov. 17, after ignoring warning signs for too long.

It is understandable that the government wanted to hurry things up in lifting COVID-19 restrictions amid mounting complaints from small businesses, especially those that face a make-or-break situation due to the prolonged control over business hours and size of gatherings.

When the first of phase restrictions were lifted on Nov. 1, the government stressed that the country’s vaccination rate had reached 70 percent and the figure for the most vulnerable population, including the elderly, topped 90 percent, claiming that risks could be “significantly lowered.”

But these rosy predictions did not pan out. The “living with COVID-19” plan was intended to be implemented gradually, in line with the infection situation, but many took the government’s move as a full-fledged lifting of restrictions, leading to a sharp increase in traffic and crowded city streets. It is also easy to see crowded subway trains during rush hour in Seoul, as if the country is already back to the normal state.

Taking a cue from the lifting of social distancing rules, companies are asking employees to show up at workplaces and resume face-to-face meetings, even though new infections remain above 3,000.

Considering that the government originally aimed for a gradual lifting of restrictions, both state institutions and private companies should keep their remote work systems in place for at least a while before steadily increasing the number of commuting workers.

Concerns are mounting over a lethal virus resurgence that could further jeopardize the antivirus medical system under enormous pressure, as schools are set to fully reopen this week and the winter season is just around the corner.

Prime Minster Kim said Friday that setting aside more hospital beds and medical resources was a priority for the government. Deeds, not words, are needed to overcome the crisis and help the nation get back to safer normalcy.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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