At Least 17 COVID Patients in South Korea Died Waiting for Hospital Beds Amid Surge

Several South Korean citizens died at home or at treatment facilities last week as they were waiting to be admitted to hospitals.

Senior Health Ministry official Park Hyang told reporters that at least 17 patients infected with COVID-19 died due to the lack of hospital beds. It's just one example, he said, of how medical resources are running out as the country is experiencing a coronavirus surge.

More than 1,480 patients are awaiting treatment at hospitals, with 86 percent of intensive care units in South Korea occupied. Many are calling on the government to reimpose strict social distancing measures to protect the population.

"What we absolutely need now is an urgent standstill to allow our medical system to restore its ability to respond [to the virus]," a coalition of doctors' groups said in a statement Monday. "We express deep concern that there will be a high possibility of serious fatalities if [the government] fails to employ stronger measures to reverse the crisis before it's too late."

According to experts, the current surge in South Korea is proof that putting economic concerns before public health is worsening the pandemic. Although more than 81 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, only 13 percent have received booster shots. With the Delta and potentially the Omicron variants reducing the effectiveness of the original vaccine doses, South Korean officials are scrambling to encourage citizens to get their booster shots.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency recorded 5,567 new infections on Tuesday, with 94 patients dying in the past 24 hours.

SK Testing
South Korea senior Health Ministry official Park Hyang told reporters that at least 17 patients infected with COVID-19 died due to the lack of hospital beds. Above, a medical staff member takes a nasal swab from a visitor as part of a coronavirus test in Seoul on December 14, 2021. Photo by Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

Health experts warn that the country's medical system is quickly approaching its limits and that fatalities could worsen if the government continues to be slow and hesitant in tightening social distancing.

Tuesday's infections were the highest yet for a Tuesday—daily tallies are usually smaller at the start of the week because of fewer tests on weekends—indicating the virus has continued to gain speed after the government moderately tightened social distancing last week.

Officials have been squeezing hospitals to set aside more beds for COVID-19 patients and scrambling to speed up the administration of booster shots by shortening the interval between second and third shots from four or five months to three months starting this week.

Officials may decide to further strengthen restrictions this week, depending on the numbers of infections and hospitalization, Park said during a briefing.

The country reported around 6,000 new cases a day last week, including three consecutive days of over 7,000. That was three times the level of 2,000 at the start of November, when the government significantly eased social distancing rules in what officials described as the first step toward restoring pre-pandemic normalcy.

In allowing larger gatherings, longer indoor dining hours and fully reopening schools, officials had predicted that improving vaccination rates will suppress hospitalizations and deaths even if the virus continues to spread. But there has been a surge in hospital admissions among people in their 60s or older, who weren't fully vaccinated or whose immunities have waned after being inoculated during the earlier phase of the vaccine rollout, which began in February.

Even as infections grew this month, the government has been hesitant in reimposing stronger restrictions, citing public fatigue, and President Moon Jae-in had declared that the country will not "retreat to the past."

Officials waited until last week to modestly sharpen social distancing, banning private gatherings of seven or more people in the greater capital region and requiring adults to verify their vaccination status to use restaurants and other indoor venues.

Health experts have called for stronger curbs, such as work from home and expanding the government's financial support to small businesses to ensure compliance with social distancing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

SK Army Tents
South Korea senior Health Ministry official Park Hyang told reporters that at least 17 patients infected with COVID-19 died due to the lack of hospital beds. Above, soldiers wearing face masks pass by a makeshift coronavirus testing site in Seoul on December 14, 2021. AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon