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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on March 3)

All News 07:04 March 03, 2020

Use resources efficiently
: Government belatedly takes action, focuses on serious COVID-19 cases

The government said Sunday that it will quarantine people with mild and moderate cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in public facilities, in a bid to focus on the treatment of serious cases in hospitals. That decision should have been taken long ago.

Although South Korea has about 1,000 negative pressure rooms needed to treat COVID-19 patients, the number of confirmed cases topped 3,000 on Saturday and 4,000 on Monday. In terms of the number of confirmed cases per 1 million people, the nation has reportedly surpassed China, where the virus originated.

As of Sunday morning, the number of people in Daegu waiting at home for their turn to be hospitalized due to the shortage of sickbeds rose to 1,661 -- about 65 percent of all COVID-19 patients in the city.

Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo said the government would not hospitalize everyone with a confirmed case. Patients will be classified into four groups depending on the severity of their illness. Only those in the two most serious categories will be admitted to hospitals for treatment, while those with less severe cases will receive medical help in other public facilities.

This is a step in the right direction in the sense that patients quarantined at home due to the lack of sickbeds will be managed by doctors, and limited resources will be concentrated on serious and life-threatening cases, but it is overdue.

In Daegu, the southeastern city hit hardest by the virus in Korea, two patients died Friday while waiting for hospital beds. On Sunday, two more passed away on standby at home. Fear is mounting that the city will become another Wuhan.

If they had received treatment in hospitals earlier, they might have survived. People with severe cases of COVID-19 were denied proper treatment because people with mild cases got there sooner and occupied desperately needed beds. This should have been a top priority for the government, but instead it took action several deaths later. That was too sluggish.

In the early stage of the outbreak, experts warned that there could be shortages of doctors and sickbeds if transmission were to pick up speed.

There were numerous news reports that many people died in Wuhan while waiting to be admitted to crowded hospitals.

Even when the government vowed to screen as many as 212,000 followers of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, for the virus, measures to deal with the expected shortage of hospital beds were not on the table.

Not only will foreseeable issues keep happening, but so will the unexpected. Humans are suffering from the virus for the first time ever. No one is immune. It is known that the virus can be transmitted from those without symptoms or those in the early stages of infection. A medical expert even warned that the virus could affect as many as 40 percent of Koreans.

The important thing is that the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assess the situation precisely and make decisions before the virus does, with swift follow-up and execution by the government. The authorities must act proactively to the extent that they may err on the side of speed. Instead, the government waited until the virus spiraled out of control and patients died on standby for lack of sickbeds. It is doubtful whether it can contain COVID-19 at this rate.

The shortage of hospital beds is not a problem restricted to Daegu and nearby North Gyeongsang Province. Other regions, including Seoul and adjacent Gyeonggi Province, need to work out measures in advance. It will be too late if they act after the outbreak begins to spread ferociously.

To make the matters worse, in Daegu, medical teams are already overloaded with the care of COVID-19 patients. Doctors are exhausted under extreme stress and some nurses have resigned.

In the current emergency, it is crucial to use limited medical resources efficiently. Priorities must be set beforehand and measures must be taken proactively. Belated steps will come at a huge cost.

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