COVID-19 deaths strain South Korea’s crematoriums and hospitals


Health officials in South Korea have ordered crematoria to burn more bodies per day and funeral homes to add more refrigerators to store the dead as families struggle with funeral arrangements amid a surge deaths from COVID-19.

The country has faced a massive coronavirus outbreak caused by the rapid variant of Omicron, which has undermined a once-robust pandemic response and is driving up hospitalizations and deaths.

Authorities have already allowed all 60 crematoria across the country to burn for longer hours starting last week, bringing their combined capacity to about 1,000 to 1,400 cremations a day.

But that hasn’t been enough to significantly reduce the backlog of bodies waiting to be cremated in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of South Korea’s 52 million people and the center of its COVID-19 outbreak.

The backlog has also spilled over to funeral homes in hospitals and other facilities, where families have struggled to arrange funerals due to longer waits for cremations.

Son Youngrae, a senior Health Ministry official, told a briefing that officials would order regional crematoria to increase the operation of the ovens by five to seven times a day, which would match crematoria levels. of the Greater Capital Region.

Backlog in Seoul

Crematoria will also be asked to receive reservations from outside their region — something many facilities typically don’t — to reduce the backlog in the Seoul area, Son said.

The country’s 1,136 funeral homes in hospitals and other facilities are currently capable of housing some 8,700 bodies, and authorities will ask them to increase capacity by adding more refrigerators or rooms with cooling systems.

“There have been regional differences in deaths from COVID-19 due to various factors, such as the size of the elderly population in each community, and there is also a difference in the capacity of cremations that each region can handle,” Son said.

The country reported 384 new deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, the sixth consecutive day of more than 300, including a record 429 on Thursday. The number of patients infected with the virus in serious or critical condition was 1,104. Nearly 70% of intensive care units designated for the treatment of COVID-19 were occupied.

Health workers have diagnosed 353,980 new infections in the past 24 hours, down from Thursday’s single-day record of more than 621,000, but the country typically reports higher numbers of cases mid-week .

Omicron’s surge has been significantly larger than expected by government health authorities, who continue to express cautious hope that the outbreak is nearing its peak.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, said it was also possible the spread could be prolonged due to the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant known as BA.2 .

Strong demand for funeral homes

South Korea has a much lower COVID-19 death rate relative to population size than the United States or many European countries, which officials attribute to high vaccination rates. But some experts say the country could be on the verge of a dangerous surge in hospitals, given gaps of weeks between infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

Funeral homes are already feeling the crisis. Oh Seong-hyeon, an official at Seoul National University Hospital, said the hospital’s 13 funeral rooms have been almost fully occupied in recent weeks. Families were often forced to stay a day or two longer than the typical three-day funeral due to slow cremations.

“Even when there is a room open, it is booked within an hour,” he said.

Digital screens showing COVID-19 safety precautions are seen inside a subway train in Seoul on Tuesday. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

Kim Min-yeong, an official at a Seoul city government-run crematorium in nearby Paju, said the facility operated its ovens until 10 p.m. while cremating 131 bodies a day. , up from its normal daily limit of 91. But families are still waiting around five days to book, she said.

Omicron has forced South Korea to abandon a strict COVID-19 response based on mass lab testing, aggressive contact tracing and quarantines to focus limited medical resources on priority groups, including people over 60. years and older and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Relaxed restrictions

Health officials recently significantly eased quarantine restrictions and border controls and stopped requiring adults to show proof of vaccination or negative tests when entering potentially crowded spaces like restaurants, so that more public and health workers can respond to the rapid expansion of home-based treatment.

Nearly two million virus carriers with mild or moderate symptoms have been told to self-isolate at home to save hospital space.

Citing the growing burden of the pandemic on businesses in the service sector, the government has eased social distancing rules in recent weeks, allowing longer indoor dining hours and larger social gatherings. But some experts say officials are putting the hospital system at risk by prioritizing economic concerns over epidemiological concerns.