South Korea builds 'container wards', speeds up testing in fight against third wave of Covid-19

Health authorities plan to step up testing by launching temporary sites at some 150 locations across the greater Seoul area. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SEOUL - South Korea is converting shipping containers into temporary wards and speeding up testing in order to fight an unabating third wave of the coronavirus.

As the total number of cases surged beyond 40,000, over 500 confirmed patients are waiting at home due to a shortage of hospital beds in Seoul and greater Seoul.

The country reported 682 new cases Thursday (Dec 10), including 646 local infections.

To ease the stress on the medical system, Seoul city government decided to install 48 "container wards" at Seoul Medical Centre in eastern Seoul by yesterday and dispatch another 102 to provincial hospitals in the days ahead.

Noting that patients may face certain inconvenience if they are admitted to these makeshift wards, the authorities sought public understanding of the decision.

"But it is an unavoidable emergency situation," one official said, adding that they will enhance safety by installing surveillance cameras and restricting access by outsiders.

Erupting in winter, the third wave of infections is proving the toughest to curb as there are too many clusters popping up in different places, from nursing homes to restaurants, saunas and army units. This makes it hard for contact tracing to catch up.

The growing number of young, asymptomatic patients, as well as patients with unknown infection routes, is also worrying. One in five patients' is unlinked.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Thursday instructed health officials to enhance tracing capabilities and diversify testing methods.

In a meeting with a Covid response team, he also appealed to private hospitals to "proactively cooperate" with the government to fight the virus, noting that public facilities are reaching their limit in treating critically-ill patients.

Data showed that over 80 per cent of hospital beds for infectious diseases are occupied, and there are only three available beds left to treat serious cases in Seoul as of Thursday.

The construction site of a temporary hospital ward outside the Seoul Medical Center on Dec 10, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

President Moon Jae-in on Monday (Dec 7) ordered the government to dispatch "every available personnel" to support epidemiological investigations, to extend testing capability, and to push for the use of rapid antigen tests that can produce results in just 15 minutes, much shorter than the six hours required for the usual polymerase chain reaction (PRC) tests.

Health officials have wasted no time in extending operation hours of public health centres that conduct virus testing, and introducing rapid antigen tests in vulnerable facilities, such as nursing homes and elder-care hospitals.

The army has also said it will dispatch 362 officers from its special warfare command to public health centres in the capital area from today, to assist in epidemiological investigations.

Starting next Monday (Dec 14), temporary testing sites will be set up at more than 150 places where young people gather, in a bid to curb the spread among those in their 20s.

The authorities have also started allowing free testing and anonymous testing, in a bid to encourage more people to get tested whether or not they display symptoms or have come into contact with any confirmed patients.

Workers make a temporary hospital ward outside the Seoul Medical Center amid the coronavirus disease pandemic in Seoul on Dec 10, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

These preemptive efforts will help detect more asymptomatic cases, said the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

It added that it can conduct up to 110,000 tests a day.

Over 24,700 tests were conducted on Wednesday alone. About 72,700 people are waiting for test results.

Eight more deaths were reported Thursday, raising the total to 564.

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