SEOUL, South Korea – Several provinces across South Korea do not have I.C.U. Beds to treat the rapidly increasing number of Covid-19 patients. As of Monday, the government confirmed that only 42 beds were available nationwide. There were just six in the Seoul metropolitan area, which is home to half the country's population and the majority of recent infections. .
The recent explosion of coronavirus cases in South Korea has put the country at risk in ways it has not seen since the pandemic began. When cases cannot be brought under control and the burden on hospitals continues to worsen, the government may, for the first time, impose Level 3 restrictions, which are the highest level of social distancing rules from a lockdown in South Korea.
In a country that was a role model for the rest of the world for most of the year, a silent fear has spread. The streets of Seoul are getting emptier every day. Supermarkets have reported brisk sales of instant noodles and meal sets. Restaurant owners are concerned that they will be forced to close their doors to customers who only order takeout.
And now the virus is even harder to contain.
"Unlike in the past, this time around, the virus seems to be popping up everywhere and no place is safe," said Myeong Hae-kyung, a head nurse at Yeungnam University Medical Center in Daegu who served on the front lines when the city was the epicenter of the city first coronavirus outbreak in the country earlier this year.
“In the last few days my life has only switched between hospital and home. I'm scared of going anywhere, ”she said.
This wave focuses on hospitals in South Korea. The country's goal is to have hospital beds available to patients within one day of being diagnosed with the disease.
However, as of Sunday, 368 patients were waiting at home in the Seoul metropolitan area to be assigned to beds. Last week, a patient died at home in Seoul while waiting for a hospital bed. Another died at home in Seoul on Sunday.
The number of I.C.U. Patients tripled this month to 274 on Monday. At the weekend, South Korea reported more than 1,000 new Covid-19 patients for five consecutive days, a record.
"We must secure hospital beds for seriously ill patients as if we were waging a war," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said on Sunday. "Every day is critical."
The rise in infections has created a bottleneck as health officials struggle to allocate a limited number of beds to patients. The government has ordered state and private general hospitals to convert at least one percent of their licensed beds to treat critically ill Covid patients.
Dec. 22, 2020, 5:18 p.m. ET
Health officials expect the bottleneck to decrease significantly in the coming week as more beds become available. The success of the effort will help determine whether the government increases social distancing restrictions to level 3, below which more than 2 million additional businesses would close or dramatically curtail their operations.
"As you can see, people don't come in," said Lee Jeong-ae, a restaurant owner in north Seoul, as she pointed to empty tables in her restaurant. "People who suffer most from social distancing are small business owners like us."
Ms. Lee sells fish soups, fried pork, and other Korean dishes. She recently began preparing for new restrictions by addressing bulk orders for plastic containers as restaurants like hers are only allowed to sell take-away under Level 3 guidelines.
The Seoul metropolitan area is still below level 2.5, schools, gyms, karaoke rooms, bars and other high risk facilities are closed. Restaurants, cinemas, hairdressing salons and many other shops remain open but must close before 9 p.m.
As of Monday, South Korea has reported 698 deaths in 50,591 cases. The aggressive campaign to “test, track and treat” patients has kept death rates comparatively low. However, epidemiologists have urged the government to put level 3 restrictions in place before it's too late.
Unlike previous waves of the virus with large clusters that officials could target and track, the most recent wave has spread to numerous small clusters in nursing homes, churches, prisons, saunas, and small private gatherings, making it difficult to contain.
Dr. Eom Joong-sik, who treats Covid-19 patients at Gachon University's Gil Hospital in Incheon, a populous port city west of Seoul, said the current problems were due to the government, despite its reputation as a leader in being the EU could not plan ahead pandemic.
"Experts had already warned that if a wave crashes in the Seoul metropolitan area, where half the country's population lives, hospital beds could become scarce and the government would have to develop a plan for this scenario," said Dr. Eom. "Right now, not only are we struggling to secure hospital beds in the metropolitan area, but we're also struggling to move patients to hospitals as we see hundreds of new patients every day."
President Moon Jae-in, proud of his administration's strategy of keeping as much of the economy going while fighting the pandemic, was reluctant to approve Level 3. Instead, the government has stepped up its testing and isolation campaigns and gradually introduced new social distancing rules.
67,000 people were tested for the virus every day over the past week, ten times more than in October. In Seoul and the surrounding cities, the government has added 134 temporary test stations to encourage people to get free tests even when they have no symptoms, in hopes of "preventively" isolating asymptomatic cases.
As part of the government's efforts to stop people from spreading the disease over Christmas and New Years, birthday parties and other private gatherings of five or more people will be banned in the Seoul metropolitan area from Wednesday.
An annual Christmas Eve gathering around a Christmas tree in Seoul City Hall Square has been canceled. Large churches have put up their usual Christmas decorations but appear abandoned as prayer services with more than 20 people have been banned. The United Christian Churches of Korea have urged believers to celebrate the holidays at home by sharing Christmas carols with friends on social media.
"We will prepare carefully to introduce Level 3 if necessary," said Son Young-rae, a health ministry spokesman. "But we hope the government and the people can work together to control the wave without going there."