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Omicron surge puts 2m patients under home isolation in Korea

Crematoriums, funeral homes struggle to keep pace as deaths pile up

Hearses line up outside a crematorium in Gwangju on March 16. (Yonhap)
Hearses line up outside a crematorium in Gwangju on March 16. (Yonhap)

The omicron surge is placing an unprecedented number of COVID-19 patients at home and hospitals across South Korea.

More than 2 million people were isolating at home as of Sunday, marking a huge jump from about 160,000 a week earlier. Of them, 315,687 were vulnerable patients aged 60 and older who require remote safety monitoring, exceeding the government’s estimated manageable threshold of 300,000. Patients under 60 are not eligible for monitoring even if they are clinically vulnerable.

Due to limited availability, Paxlovid, Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill, has been slow to roll out. Out of the 762,000 courses Korea has ordered, 163,000 have made it into the country so far. As of March 17, 74,513 patients have been prescribed the oral antiviral.

Hospital admissions are also rising, with 67 percent of intensive care-unit beds and 71 percent of semi-ICU beds occupied as of Saturday afternoon. At the end of February the ICU occupancy rate was 44 percent.

Despite repeated reassurances that hospitals are running smoothly, the Ministry of Health and Welfare revised the guidelines last week to discharge COVID-19 patients from ICUs and semi-ICUs faster. The cap on the maximum stay in an ICU is 20 days since the day a test is taken, and 10 days in a semi-ICU.

Starting Monday, beds at designated COVID-19 hospitals are also restricted to patients specifically requiring respiratory therapies.

Staffing shortages are forcing hospitals to keep infected health workers on the job. The Health Ministry, in addition to cutting the mandatory isolation period for all medical workers to three days since a positive test, has asked doctors and nurses to monitor patients remotely while in isolation.

During the last 24 hours of Saturday 327 people lost their lives to COVID-19 -- the second-highest death toll to be logged in a single day after March 17’s 429. In the past week an average of 290 deaths were attributed to COVID-19 per day, more than triple the average of 86 seen in the last week of February. The 4,370 deaths registered so far this month account for more than a third of 12,101 total known deaths over the pandemic.

The rapid climb in COVID-19 deaths is putting a strain on crematoriums and funeral homes, with families of the deceased struggling to find available services. To cope with the high demand, public cremation services are being ordered to extend operation hours at least until through mid-April, the Health Ministry said March 16.

Under the omicron response plan, Korea has been keeping a minimal level of mitigation measures in place even as the ongoing wave spikes. As omicron’s even more transmissible BA.2 subvariant takes dominance over the circulating BA.1 lineage, the wave’s peak -- anticipated to come later this month -- could last longer, according to government forecasts. The BA.2 subvariant showed up in 26 percent of analyzed samples last week.

By Kim Arin (

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