South Korea Kicking People Out of ICUs over Coronavirus

South Korea ordered Chinese coronavirus patients currently receiving treatment for their symptoms in Intensive Care Units (ICUs) nationwide to vacate their beds immediately on Wednesday in an effort to ease a pandemic-induced hospital bed shortage across the country, the Korean Herald reported Thursday.

South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare issued ejection notices to 210 ICU patients on December 22. The order applies to coronavirus patients who have been hospitalized in ICUs for more than 20 consecutive days. Patients who refuse to comply with the forced discharge face a fine of up to 1 million won ($842 USD).

The South Korean Health Ministry said 71 patients had obeyed the order as of Thursday morning. Public health authorities have arranged for these patients to move to non-coronavirus ICUs “or other ‘step-down’ beds providing less intensive care accordingly,” the ministry said.

Starting last week, South Korean health officials informed hospitals nationwide they would soon begin capping the length of ICU stays for Chinese coronavirus patients to 20 days maximum. After the 20-day mark, “the national health insurance waiver for COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus]-related treatment costs will end for patients and hospitals will no longer be given aid,” Seoul warned.

A health official from Yongsan district, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), sprays anti-septic solution at outside stores in an alley of Itaewon district to prevent the spread of coronavirus ahead of Halloween on October 29, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

A health official from Yongsan district sprays anti-septic solution in an alley of Itaewon district to prevent the spread of coronavirus ahead of Halloween on October 29, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Doctors may petition the South Korean Health Ministry to allow exceptions to the rule, but this must now be done through more formal means than before. Under the new measure, a doctor must justify through official documents why he or she believes a patient would need to stay in the ICU longer than the government-allotted time frame.

South Korea’s federal government decided on the 20-day ICU limit for coronavirus patients as part of its ongoing efforts to mitigate the country’s hospital bed shortage, which is reportedly reaching a crisis level. Park Hyang, a senior South Korean Health Ministry official, defended the time limits placed on ICU beds on Wednesday, saying they are based on precedents set by laws pertaining to South Korea’s Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act.

Roughly 80 percent of all ICU beds within coronavirus hospital wings in South Korea were occupied as of December 23 at midnight, according to estimates by state health authorities. The occupancy rate on the same night for such beds in greater Seoul — home to nearly 10 million residents — was estimated at 85 percent.

At least 52 people in South Korea died while waiting for a hospital bed between November 1 and December 18, according to data from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

Gabrielle Reyes