COVID-19 saturates South Korean hospitals and crematoriums

SEOUL (AP) — South Korean health authorities have instructed crematoriums to burn more bodies a day and funeral homes to add more refrigerators to store the dead, as families scramble to organize funerals amid a spike in COVID-19 deaths. 19.

The country has suffered a huge bout of coronavirus fueled by the contagious omicron variant, which has challenged a previously robust management of the pandemic and spiked deaths and hospitalizations.

Authorities had already last week allowed the country’s 60 crematoria to cremate for more hours a day, expanding their total capacity from about 1,000 to 1,400 cremations a day.

But that has not been enough to reduce the accumulation of bodies waiting to be cremated in the populous metropolitan area of ​​​​Seoul, where half of the country’s 52 million inhabitants live and is the center of the outbreak. The backlog has also spread to funeral homes and hospitals and other facilities, as families struggled to organize funerals due to longer waits for cremations.

Authorities will instruct regional crematoria to increase operations from five days a week to seven days a week, Health Ministry official Son Youngrae said. That would be equivalent to the activity of the crematoria in the capital area.

Crematoria will also be asked to take bookings from outside their region, something many do not routinely do, to reduce delays in the Seoul region, Son said.

The 1,136 funeral homes, hospital morgues and other facilities can now house some 8,700 bodies, and the authorities will ask them to expand that figure with more refrigerators or refrigerated rooms.

“There have been regional differences in deaths from COVID-19 due to various factors such as the size of the elderly population in each community, and there is also a difference in the capacity of cremations that each community can manage,” Son said.

The country reported 384 new COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, the sixth day in a row with more than 300, including a record 429 on Thursday. The number of virus patients in serious or critical condition was 1,104. Almost 70% of intensive care beds reserved for COVID-19 were occupied.

The omicron outbreak has been considerably larger than expected by health authorities, who continue to express cautious hope that it is close to peaking.

South Korea has a much lower rate of COVID-19 deaths relative to its population than the United States or many other European nations, something officials attribute to high vaccination rates. But some experts believe the country could be on the verge of a dangerous surge in hospitalizations.

Ómicron has forced South Korea to rethink its strict response to COVID-19, based on laboratory tests, aggressive contact tracing and quarantines, to focus limited medical resources on priority groups, including people aged 60 and over and others with previous medical problems.

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