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[Editorial] Resolute steps needed

With omicron crisis looming, government makes it rule to treat patients at home

As the country’s capacity of available sickbeds for patients infected with the coronavirus is nearing the breaking point, disease prevention authorities will make it a rule to treat them at home.

Patients will be hospitalized only when domiciliary treatment is impossible for such reasons as patients’ health conditions or an infection-prone residential environment.

Patients will be linked to medical institutions monitoring their health. They will be provided with treatment kits consisting of an oxygen saturation measurement device, a thermometer and disinfectant.

The home is not a medical institution, but a living space. Naturally, it does not have a negative pressure ventilation system or protective equipment. There is a high risk of patients infecting other family members living together.

It is questionable if remote monitoring can prevent the spread of the virus, let alone manage its treatment. It is hard to erase the impression the government has effectively given up on preventing the pandemic.

The government has spent 55 trillion won ($46.3 billion) in pandemic relief packages on five occasions. If it had used even one-hundredth of that to increase sickbeds and secure more equipment and medical personnel, it could have avoided this helpless situation to some degree.

Before easing restrictions on movement, the government expected a surge in the number of new COVID-19 cases, but it was seriously underprepared for the expected situation. Throughout last summer, COVID-19 medical teams on the field cried that they could not afford to look after patients any longer, demanding the improvement of response systems, but the government did little.

COVID-19 infections began to surge after the government eased coronavirus restrictions last month in the first part of the three-stage return to normal under the “living with COVID-19” scheme. The average number of daily new cases nearly doubled from 1,716 in the fourth week of October to 3,502 in that of November. The number of serious cases rose 2.25 times from 212 to 477 over the same span. The occupancy of sickbeds for patients in critical condition rose from 42.1 percent to 70.6 percent across the country, with that for Seoul and the surrounding area increasing from 55.4 percent to 83.4 percent. In Greater Seoul, practically all sickbeds for critically ill patients are occupied.

The government raised the risk level of the pandemic in the capital area to the highest level. It said it has become impossible to move on the second phase of the “living with COVID-19” scheme. The first phase will be maintained. Originally the government planned to enter the second phase in mid-December and the third in late January.

Of course, economic damage to small businesses is a serious problem, but it may not be more important than the lives of people amid the exploding number of new patients. If the nation’s medical response system is in a dire situation where remote monitoring is inevitable for all new patients, the government should place top priority on reducing the number of cases.

The World Health Organization warned that a new and potentially much more infectious variant of COVID-19, omicron is likely to spread internationally and poses a very high risk of infection surges.

The government banned entry into the country for foreign arrivals from eight African countries in a move to stave off the omicron variant. Japan on Tuesday banned entry to all foreign travelers after one traveler had tested positive for the variant while under quarantine in Japan. The spread of omicron to Korea may be a matter of time.

The domestic pandemic situation may worsen faster than authorities anticipated. Medical response and vaccination may not catch up. Proactive measures are needed. The government must consider tightening restrictions without striking a severe blow to self-employed small businesses.

A temporary retreat may rather help recover pre-COVID-19 life. The government must adjust social distancing regulations resolutely to reduce the number of new patients and the burden on the medical system. It will be difficult to overcome an extraordinary crisis with an evasive attitude.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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