An increasing number of hospitals in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province are locked down with coronavirus patients reported at the hospitals. The Seoul National University Hospital in Bundang, Gyeonggi Province, which is visited by about 6,800 patients everyday, has shut down some of its units after one of its staff tested positive for the virus on Monday, while Paik Hospital in Seoul’s Jung District has not accepted emergency room patients and outpatients since Sunday when an inpatient who hid the fact that she was from Daegu has been diagnosed with the virus. Being one of the “safe hospital,” which separate those with respiratory disease from those without, Paik Hospital’s failure to prevent the infection has exposed vulnerabilities of the “safe hospital” system.
Transmission of the coronavirus in large hospitals in the Seoul metropolitan area is the worst case scenario experts have been dreading, not least because the metropolitan area is home to about half of the population and large hospitals are usually visited by thousands of outpatients every day. Not only do large hospitals have a high concentration of inpatients whose immune systems are weak, but they play a vital role in the local healthcare system. If one of them closes after a coronavirus case is confirmed leaving its medical staff quarantined, it can paralyze the entire healthcare service in the region, rendering early responses impossible, and could pose a huge risk to patients who need urgent treatment or are seriously ill.
It is also worrying that the source of the infection cannot be determined for some cases. Bundang Jesaeng Hospital, another safe hospital in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, has been suspending outpatient services and closed its emergency room since last Thursday after a case was confirmed. The number of confirmed cases in the hospital has risen to 13 for the past four days, but the authorities has yet to identify the source of infection. St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul’s Eunpyeong District became the first hospital in the metropolitan area to reopen on Monday after a patient was diagnosed, but authorities fail to figure out where the disease originated.
The number of new daily infections has dropped to below 300 since Sunday with the tests on Shincheonji members in Daegu drawing to a close. However, this is not a time for complacency given the number of cases for which the source of infection has not been identified. These cases account for 35 percent out of 130 patients in Seoul, which is much higher than 18 percent in Daegu and 28 percent in North Gyeongsang Province. It is crucial to find out the origin of the infection as these cases could lead to a large-scale outbreak at any time.
It is also important to prevent transmission from the outside as the virus is spreading across the world. A man in his 20s who had recently been to Italy tested positive in Suwon. With more than a thousand new confirmed cases a day, Italy has put 15 cities including Milan and Venice under quarantine. Nine U.S. states, including Washington, California and New York, have declared a state of emergency.
“We should not be complacent,” said President Moon Jae-in on Monday. “South Korea will be seen as a country that has successfully contained the virus.” The public still experience frustration as more than 100 countries have banned South Korean nationals from entering their countries, and they are even concerned if they could not buy masks. There are still more than 2,200 patients in Daegu who are waiting to be hospitalized and treated due to a lack of hospital beds. This is not a time to pat ourselves on the back. We need to be remain alert reminding ourselves of the worst-case scenario.