SEOUL, South Korea — In several provinces across South Korea, there are no I.C.U. beds available to treat the rapidly rising number of Covid-19 patients. As of Monday, only 42 beds were available nationwide, the government said. In the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s population and the majority of its recent infections, there were just six.
The latest explosion of coronavirus cases in South Korea has put the country on edge in a way that it has not been since the beginning of the pandemic. If cases cannot be brought under control and the strain on hospitals alleviated, the government could for the first time impose Level 3 restrictions, the set of social-distancing rules just short of a lockdown in South Korea.
A quiet fear has taken hold in a country that for much of the year was held up as a model for the rest of the world. The streets of Seoul are growing emptier by the day. Supermarkets have reported brisk sales of instant noodles and meal kits. Restaurant owners are anxious they will be forced to close their doors except for takeout orders.
And now, the virus is even harder to contain.
“Unlike in the past, this time the virus seems to pop up everywhere and no place is safe,” said Myeong Hae-kyung, a chief nurse at the Yeungnam University Medical Center in Daegu who served on the front line when the city was the epicenter of the country’s first coronavirus outbreak early this year.
“In recent days, my life has been alternating just between the hospital and home,” she said. “I am afraid to go anywhere else.”
In this wave, hospitals are a critical focus in South Korea. The country has aimed to provide patients with hospital beds within a day of receiving a diagnosis.
But as of Sunday, 368 patients in the Seoul metropolitan area were waiting at home for beds to be assigned to them. Last week, a patient in Seoul died at home while waiting for a hospital bed. Another died at home in Seoul on Sunday.
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