South Korea braces for bed shortages as coronavirus cases near nine-month high

The Korean government has reimposed strict social distancing rules on the capital Seoul and surrounding regions. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea reported more than 500 new coronavirus cases for the second consecutive day on Friday (Nov 27), a level not seen in nearly nine months, as a third wave of infections spread nationwide and the authorities scrambled to provide more hospital beds.

"The situation is extremely serious and acute, as all of the 17 metropolitan cities and provinces and especially all the 25 districts in Seoul are reporting new cases," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a meeting on Covid-19 responses.

The daily tally of 569 came a day after the numbers hit the highest level since March 6, when South Korea was reeling from the first major Covid-19 epidemic outside China.

Of the latest cases, 525 were domestically transmitted and more than 64 per cent of those were from the Seoul metropolitan area, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

Authorities said the fresh wave is more difficult to trace and contain than early outbreaks which were concentrated in a specific region or among a certain religious group.

Alarmed by the countrywide spread and increasing number of cases involving younger patients, Mr Chung warned that daily infections could swell to 1,000 and there could be hospital bed shortages unless the contagion was brought under control.

The health ministry said there are sufficient beds available for now but it could face shortfalls if the current spike continues for more than two weeks.

The government reimposed strict social distancing rules on the capital Seoul and surrounding regions this week - restricting dining out, religious services and nightly entertainment.

The move came only a month after similar restrictions were eased as a second wave of infections ebbed.

The earlier waves quickly depleted hospital facilities, with the number of remaining beds for critical cases in the greater Seoul area, a metropolis of 26 million people, once plunging to near single digits.

As of September, South Korea had about 500 intensive-care beds for its 52 million people. The government vowed to double the number by next year, including more than 110 this year.

The ratio is near the average of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, but in previous waves of infection, many of those beds were used by less serious cases or patients with other ailments.

South Korea has reported total infections of 32,887, with 516 deaths.

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