SEOUL, Aug 12 (Reuters) - South Korea is considering mandating its largest hospitals provide at least 1.5% of their intensive care beds for severe COVID-19 patients as such cases rise along with record new infections, two sources familiar with the plan told Reuters.
While the country has a relatively low mortality rate - 0.98% as of Wednesday - the more contagious Delta variant and a rise in domestic travel over summer have contributed to a spike in severe coronavirus patients, many of them young and unvaccinated.
Severe COVID-19 cases jumped from 145 as of July 10 to 372 on Wednesday, official data showed. Of the severely ill patients, 62.1% were between aged 20 to 59.
Health authorities convened a meeting with directors of the top 31 hospitals on Tuesday where they revealed plans to issue an administrative order to mandate hospitals to designate 1.5% of their ICU beds for severe and critical COVID-19 patients, two sources who were present at the video conference told Reuters. They declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Since December, hospitals have already had to set aside at least 1% of their ICU beds, but hospital officials say that it goes far beyond simply freeing up a few more beds as coronavirus patients often require whole floors or wards be sealed off, and specially trained medical teams tasked with their treatment.
Many directors objected to the government plan on the grounds that the ICU capacities were physically impossible to free up at such short notice, one source said.
Yu Kyung-ho, director of Hallym University Sacred Heart Hospital in Anyang, who also attended the meeting said his hospital has 11 extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) devices, and eight were already occupied by severe coronavirus patients.
"Just focusing on securing more ICU beds wouldn't solve the problem," Yu said. "If our hospital assigns more ICU beds for COVID-19 patients, we will need to send non-COVID patients home."
A health ministry official acknowledged a meeting with hospital officials was held, but did not confirm the plan.
South Korea has 810 ICU beds for severe COVID-19 patients nationwide and 298 of them were available as of Wednesday evening, the official said. Of the vacant spots, 146 were in the capital Seoul and neighbouring areas.
South Korea reported 1,987 new coronavirus cases for Wednesday. The total number of infections in the country stands at 218,192, with 2,138 deaths.
Sixteen percent of South Korea's 52 million population have been fully vaccinated, while 42.5% have received at least one dose of a vaccine. The government aims to inoculate 70% with at least one shot by September.
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