South Korea, widely seen as a global model of coronavirus containment, faces its biggest pandemic challenge yet, as COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise after the country began removing pandemic related restrictions.
Daily caseloads surpassed 7,000 Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. That is quadruple the daily numbers reported at the beginning of November, when South Korea pivoted toward its living with COVID-19 plan.
In the Seoul metropolitan area, where more than half the country’s population resides, intensive care hospital beds are full. The country has also hit new daily highs for the number of severely ill COVID-19 patients, which stood at 857 Thursday.
Although South Korea has tallied only a fraction of the cases and deaths of other developed countries such as the United States and Britain, its fatality rate rose to 1.4% over the past week. That is the ninth highest among 38 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations.
South Korea's deteriorating situation demonstrates the challenges of returning to life as normal, complicated by the delta variant that undermined government projections, even in a country that had until now been spared the worst of the pandemic.
Government officials, who have been careful not to raise unnecessary alarms as they sought to keep businesses open, are now sounding a grimmer tone.
At a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters on Friday, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who oversees the pandemic response, judged that the country's medical response capability was quickly burning out, warning that stricter social distancing measures may need to be enforced if the "risky situation" does not soon turn around.
The prime minister again placed heavy emphasis on vaccination, including for minors. He announced the interval between the second vaccine shot and boosters would be shortened to three months.
The government paused its "living with COVID-19" transition Monday, replacing it with an expanded "vaccine pass" mandate. The new plan requires people who gather in limited groups at restaurants and cafes to show proof of vaccination or a very recent negative PCR test result upon entry. This usually takes the form of a smartphone application, called COOV. The mandate extends to other public facilities, including gyms, study rooms and bars.
The figure that health officials are watching closely is the number of severe COVID-19 patients, especially as hospitals are taxed. A recent projection by the National Institute for Mathematical Sciences put that figure as likely to exceed 1,000 by next week, and the overall daily caseload could reach the 12,000 level by the end of the month.
That is an alarming prospect for hospital staff, who are already exhausted by the unrelenting stream of COVID-19 patients.
"Non-COVID patients are not able to access the ER." Dr. Chon Eun-mi, a pulmonologist at Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital, told VOA.
"The ER is clogged with COVID patients, leaving people with other symptoms no choice but to wait it out at home. Surgeries are also being delayed," she said.
It's a similar picture at other major hospitals across Seoul, nearby Incheon and the surrounding Gyeonggi province.
Kim issued an administrative order for 1,700 more hospital beds to be secured outside of the capital.
Those 60 years and older, with waning vaccine immunity, have made up most of the severe breakthrough cases as the delta variant spreads in the country.
"The government didn't expect this many severe COVID cases since we had made vaccination progress," Chon said, referring to South Korea's 92% vaccination rate among adults.
"It broadly adopted its 'living with COVID' transition, more people moved about, and those who were immunocompromised or elderly became reinfected. But, this time, they had to wait at home because there were no available hospital beds. Their conditions worsened and they died before they could get real help," she said.
Chon said COVID-19 patients should be centralized at a large facility such as a stadium, convention hall or borrowed hotel, where those with mild symptoms can receive antibody or remdesivir treatment before their conditions worsen. She said the current approach of remotely treating mild patients from home is not working.
The omicron factor
South Korea has detected at least 63 cases of the omicron variant, 48 of which were linked to community spread.
Omicron, which the World Health Organization last month designated a variant of concern, was first reported by South Africa. Health experts fear it may be more transmissible, but it is not yet clear if it causes more or less severe symptoms.
Seoul has limited arrivals from a growing list of African countries, most recently Ghana and Zambia. It also instituted a mandatory 10-day quarantine on all international arrivals, regardless of their vaccination status.
Dr. Chung Jae-hoon, adviser to the prime minister's office and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, recently offered this assessment to a local newspaper.
"Expect to stay in this COVID-19 reality for at least another three years. Delta has taught us that vaccination alone will not end the crisis. The first half of next year will be even harder for medical staff. Bigger challenges remain," he said.
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.