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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on March 3)

All News 07:05 March 03, 2020

Belated but necessary
New guidelines focus on treating severe cases

A government decision to prioritize treatment of severe cases of the new coronavirus is somewhat belated but necessary to fight the epidemic. The decision came Sunday after an acute shortage of hospital beds and medical staff was reported in the southeastern city of Daegu, the epicenter of the virus in Korea.

The health authorities will enforce new guidelines to focus more on treating patients with severe symptoms, including the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. So far they have concentrated on placing all patients under quarantine at hospitals for both the treatment and containment of COVID-19. But this effort cannot work anymore because the number of confirmed cases has skyrocketed to more than 4,000.

The decision also reflects the harsh reality that the country's quarantine and healthcare system is already showing signs of reaching its limits, particularly in Daegu and the surrounding North Gyeongsang Province. It is urgent to take timely and appropriate action before it is too late. Therefore it is inevitable to put a priority on treating patients with higher health risks, while quarantining patients with minor symptoms at community treatment centers.

Under the revised guidelines, patients will be classified into four groups according to their condition. Those with severe symptoms will get treatment at bigger hospitals or medical centers specializing in the novel coronavirus. If necessary, they will be put into intensive care in negative-pressure isolation rooms. To address the lack of hospital beds, the authorities will turn public buildings such as education centers, exhibition halls and gymnasiums into makeshift treatment centers for patients with minor symptoms.

Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo said that in order to focus more on serious cases, those with mild symptoms will be treated at these designated treatment facilities, instead of being hospitalized. He noted that 81 percent of COVID-19 patients do not need hospitalization, while 14 percent show severe symptoms and the remaining 5 percent were in critical condition.

The new rules represent a desperate attempt to best allocate limited medical resources in the face of the worsening public health emergency. In the worst-hit Daegu with a population of 2.4 million, the authorities has so far secured around 1,600 beds, which fall far short of the soaring number of patients which stood at 3,081 Monday, accounting for 73 percent of the total. This means about 1,400 patients are in self-quarantine without getting proper treatment, not to mention hospitalization.

Making matters worse, four patients died of the virus waiting for hospitalization. If the epidemic continues to rage, such deaths could rise further. We hope the revised guidelines will help ease the shortage of hospital beds.

At stake is how to classify patients in an objective and fair manner. A flexible system is also required to quickly transfer mild patients to hospitals when their conditions get worse. Equally important is to mobilize doctors, nurses and other medical staff to ease the shortage in Daegu and other locations.

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