Covid-19 treatment bottlenecks
The author is a professor of Wonju College of Medicine, Yonsei University, and former president of the Korean Society of Emergency Medicine.
One out of five Koreans has been infected with Covid-19, with the cumulative count passing the 10 million milestone. As many as 9 million people became infected in less than two months. Once proclaiming itself as a global leaders in containing the virus spread, Korea is now home to the world’s largest outbreak. The surge in the death toll is a bigger worry. As many as 291 died in a single day. With the faster spread of a newer stealth Omicron variant, it is hard to predict when the Covid-19 crisis will peak.
Due to a flood of new patients — over 1,700 daily — hospitals have become chaotic. Ambulances are lining up in front of emergency rooms at hospitals waiting for space in the isolation units. Urgent Covid-19 patients must be isolated in negative pressure units, but the lack of space and beds is delaying timely treatment of these patients.
The surge in emergency patients raises the possibility of their illness developing to a serious state and even death. Crematories have become crammed with bodies of Covid-19 patients despite an extension of operating hours. Due to lack of space, families are forced to stretch their funeral mourning period to five days from the usual three days.
Korean emergency rooms are equipped with negative-pressure units since the MERS outbreak in 2015. But the numbers are hardly enough. Other patients in vulnerable condition are exposed to infection and danger.
The hospital where I work in Wonju, Gangwon Province, receives a number of calls from ambulances carrying Covid-19 patients since they cannot find hospitals with such treating rooms to accommodate them in the capital region.
Due to lack of medical system for Covid-19 patients and timely treatment of urgent patients, lives are alarmingly in danger. The survival rate of patients under cardiac arrest before the arrival of hospitals has fallen sharply. The rate that averaged at 8.7 percent in 2019 fell to 7.5 percent in 2020 after the outbreak of Covid-19. The ratio would have come down more sharply due to a surge in Omicron infections.
If emergency patients suspected to be infected with Covid-19 are treated in the same rooms as general patients, the medical system could be exposed to greater infection risk. If Covid-19 spreads in the emergency room and infects other urgent visitors and medical professionals, the function of emergency rooms can be destabilized. The government and medical community must come up with speedy measures to address a growing number of deaths and seriously-ill from Covid-19.
Temporary negative-pressure units must be installed and isolation rooms for Covid-19 inpatients must be increased. The government must increase the number of hospitals designated to treat Covid-19 patients so that those suffering from virus symptoms can be treated faster. Information on the availability of hospital beds must be systematically shared to maximize resources.
Korea addressed the sudden outbreak in Daegu City between February and March 2020 at the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Big clinics in Daegu were used to treat Covid-19 patients. All possible resources must be utilized to effectively contain the spread.
Critically-ill patients could be on the roads in search of hospital space opening even now. They should not be abandoned in one corner due to a lack of isolation units. Without increasing negative-pressure units in emergency rooms, more lives could be lost.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.