South Korea overwhelmed by COVID-19 surge, deaths

Pedestrians in downtown Seoul wear masks

South Korea strained by COVID-19 surge

South Korea’s total coronavirus infections topped 10 million as surging severe cases and deaths increasingly put a strain on crematories.

The country has been battling a record COVID-19 wave driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant even as it largely scrapped its once aggressive tracing and quarantine efforts and eased social distancing curbs.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 490,881 cases for Tuesday, the second highest daily tally after it peaked at 621,205 on March 16.

The total caseload rose to 10,427,247, with 13,432 deaths, up 291 a day before.

The country’s infection and death rates are still far below those recorded elsewhere, as almost 87% of its 52 million residents are fully vaccinated and 63% have received booster shots.

But the death toll nearly doubled in just about six weeks, with daily fatalities peaking at 429 last Friday, fuelling demand for funeral arrangements.

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The government on Monday instructed the 60 crematories nationwide to operate for longer hours to burn up to seven bodies from five, and the 1,136 funeral parlours capable of storing some 8,700 bodies to expand their facilities.

Health ministry data showed that the 28 crematories in Seoul city were operating at 114.2% capacity as of Monday, while the ratio stood at about 83% in other regions such as Sejong and Jeju.

The number of critically ill patients has been hovering above 1,000 over the past two weeks, but it could go up to 2,000 in early April, another health ministry official Park Hyang said.

Around 64.4% of the intensive care unit beds are occupied as of Wednesday, compared with some 59% two weeks earlier.

“The medical system is under substantial pressure, though it is still operated within a manageable range,” Park told a briefing on Wednesday.

“We would focus more on high risk groups going forward, and make constant checks to ensure that there is no blind spot.”

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