Korea’s new Covid-19 cases stayed below 300 for two consecutive days on Monday, which was attributed mainly to reduced tests over the weekend. The cumulative caseload has exceeded 20,000 since this country found its first patient on Jan. 20.

The nation has been recording three-digit figures of newly confirmed patients for more than 17 days, after the government saw a huge spike in local infections that spawned from two new epicenters -- Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul and a massive anti-government rally in the heart of the capital city on Aug. 15.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an additional 225 new virus cases occurred on Monday -- 222 local infections and 13 foreign arrivals -- raising the accumulated number to 20,182. The greater Seoul area, including Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, remained the hotspot of the spread of the virus, accounting for 175 out of the 222 local cases.

Health officials also reported cases in all other metropolitan cities and provinces across the country, except North Jeolla Province.

They have also confirmed a steep spike of Covid-19 patients in critical condition. As of Tuesday, the nation has 104 patients critically or severely ill from the virus, which is 11 times larger than the number on Aug. 18.

Critically ill patients are those who require mechanical breathing or use extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), an artificial cardiopulmonary device. Severely ill patients refer to those who can breathe on their own but have a drop in oxygen saturation levels due to symptoms, such as pneumonia.

According to health officials, the recent increase in the number of confirmed patients in their 60s or older must have affected the growth in patients with critical and severe illness. The public health authorities and hospitals are scrambling to secure beds and personnel to treat them.

As of last Sunday, only 55 out of 517 beds secured by the quarantine authorities to treat critically ill patients remained vacant. Even among the 55, only 39 beds are available for immediate hospitalization considering the required medical resources such as workforce and equipment. In the greater Seoul area, only 16 out of the 193 beds at ICUs are unoccupied, and the number drops down to a mere 10 that can treat patients right away.

Regions outside of the metropolitan area are also witnessing a shortage of beds to treat critically ill patients. Gwangju, Daejeon, Gangwon Province, South and North Jeolla Province have no beds available to treat critically ill patients.

To resolve the issue, the government will secure an additional 40 intensive care treatment beds this month, in part by transferring patients with improved conditions to beds that treat moderate or mild patients.

Given the rate of increase in confirmed cases, however, health officials are not confident that this will resolve the situation.

“We are in a challenging situation due to the rapid increase of critical and severe patients,” Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Kim Gang-lip said. “To save even one more precious life, we will do our best by securing beds for them.”

The total number of people released from quarantine after making full recoveries rose to 15,198, up 225 from the previous day. The death toll remained unchanged at 324. The nation has tested 1,959,080 suspected patients since Jan. 3.

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