As hospitals focus on Covid, concerns are raised over general patients
Concerns have been raised over a disruption in general medical treatment as the government this month is set to designate more public hospitals and some 10,000 hospital beds to Covid-19 patients.
“We will expand the number of hospital beds for coronavirus patients to make treatment possible even with over 10,000 new cases per day,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said in a virus response meeting on Wednesday.
“Ten thousand beds for moderate-to-severe Covid-19 patients will be added to the current 15,000 to reach around 25,000 by mid-January,” Kim added.
Under this plan, the government will earmark an additional 2,255 hospital beds by the end of this month and add another 6,944 in January — freeing up a total of 24,702 Covid-19 hospital beds.
To fulfill these numbers, some state-owned hospitals, including the National Medical Center, Seoul Medical Center and a hospital run by the Veterans Health Service, will be vacated to exclusively treat Covid-19 patients.
Ever since Korea declared a phased return to normalcy from Nov. 1, pandemic indicators have been deteriorating rapidly. The occupancy rate of intensive care units (I.C.U.s) surged from 45.9 percent on Nov. 1 to 79.2 percent on Wednesday, and the number of patients waiting to be allocated to a hospital bed jumped to 374 in the greater Seoul area alone.
To stem the virus spread, the government reintroduced stricter social distancing measures, including limits on social gatherings and business hours in most facilities, and expanded the types of establishments requiring a vaccine pass from Dec. 18.
Despite such efforts, Korea saw another record-high number of critical Covid-19 cases on Wednesday at 1,063.
Critical cases refer to those who require oxygen treatment (such as high-flow oxygen therapy), mechanical ventilation (being put on a respirator), extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) or continuous renal replacement therapy (CRRT).
The country’s daily Covid-19 cases jumped to 7,456 on Wednesday, bringing the total caseload to 583,065.
Total Covid-19 fatalities also climbed by 78 from the previous day to a total of 4,906.
The current pandemic is likely to continue to worsen, according to the latest prediction by the health authorities.
According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) estimate, if the effect of the current distancing regulations over the past two weeks is maintained, the country will likely see up to 8,000 daily new Covid-19 cases in late December and 4,700 cases in late January next year. But if the distancing effect wanes, daily infections can jump up to 8,400 by the end of January next year, the KDCA warned.
The government on Wednesday said that the latest measure of allocating additional Covid-19-designated hospital beds was announced to be able to cope in a scenario where daily virus cases reach 10,000, the rate of developing severe Covid-19 conditions is at 2.5 percent and the hospitalization rate is at 18.6 percent.
The plan, however, can only be made possible by postponing noncritical surgeries and treatments or not receiving new inpatients, and instead solely focusing on Covid-19 treatment — which is likely to cause a major disruption in the health care system.
National university hospitals, including Seoul National University Hospital, will allocate about 40 percent of all adult I.C.U.s for Covid patients, mostly from the internal medicine-related beds.
Larger general hospitals such as Samsung Medical Center was also ordered to designate an additional 1 percent of their beds to the treatment of critical Covid-19 patients.
The National Medical Center, Seoul Medical Center, one veterans hospital and one workplace injury hospital will discharge or transfer all of their patients except for Covid-19 patients to provide additional beds.
Authorities also acknowledged such worries about non-Covid-related health care provisions.
“We do believe a medical disruption is inevitable,” Son Young-rae, senior epidemiological strategist at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, said in a briefing Wednesday.
“It is inevitable that larger general hospitals will have to reduce surgeries, and outpatient treatment can be controlled,” Son said, adding, “We have adjusted only a few public hospitals to focus on treating Covid-19 in order to minimize disruptions in treatment for the vulnerable.”
The government’s recent guidelines limiting Covid-19 patients admitted in I.C.U.s to a maximum of 20 days is likely to add to the confusion.
In an effort to ease the bed shortage, the government told hospitals that it would impose a 20-day cap for Covid-19 patients allowed to stay in an I.C.U. They must be transferred to another ward if needed after the 20 days, only with a few exceptions.
For any who refuse to abide by such rules, the state aid for Covid-19-related treatment costs will be cut and a fine of up to 1 million won ($840) will be imposed.
The authorities ordered hospitals to follow the guidelines within two days after receiving the written directive.
Frontline doctors, however, asked for the discharge rule to be put off or scrapped as it could jeopardize both Covid- and non-Covid-patients’ safety.
Lee Seu-ran, head of the hospital bed management at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, said during Wednesday’s briefing that “patients with reduced immunity or those who fall under some exceptional reasons can stay in the Covid I.C.U.”
BY SEO JI-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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