Older South Koreans drive surge in critical coronavirus cases

People drink outside in Seoul as tougher social distancing rules continue, South Korea

More than 40% of South Korea’s new coronavirus victims are older than 60, fuelling a surge in the numbers of those severely or critically ill, health authorities said on Wednesday.

South Korea is battling a second wave of infection, centred on Seoul, the capital, and its surroundings, which are home to 25 million people.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 267 new infections on Tuesday, a slight increase over the previous day. South Korea has a tally of 20,449 infections and 326 deaths.

“The number in critical condition is steadily increasing,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a briefing, adding that 124 patients were severely or critically ill by Wednesday, up from just nine on Aug. 18.

“We have 40 percent which are above the age of 60,” he said, referring to the new cases, and adding that authorities expected the number of those needing intensive care to rise.

South Korea was the site this year of the first large outbreak outside China, but the relative youth of many of those infected could have helped keep down the death toll, experts have said.

The last three weeks’ surge in infections has depleted medical facilities, leaving fewer than 3% of hospital beds, or just nine, available for critical cases in greater Seoul, down from 22% about 10 days ago, the health ministry said.

The government is scrambling to add beds, for fear the number of severe cases will rise, Kim said. Only social distancing measures could limit the spread, he added, urging people to cancel trips and stay at home as much as possible.

Some minor league baseball games were called off this week after at least two players tested positive, and an increasing number of players wore masks during games.

Social distancing measures to reduce the virus spread will hurt Asia’s fourth-biggest economy, the government said, after unprecedented curbs took effect in Seoul and its environs.

On Tuesday, the finance minister urged the government and ruling party to provide further cash handouts to some households, following similar payments in May to every home.

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