By Joyce Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea ordered hospitals to secure beds for critical COVID-19 patients, Yonhap news agency said, as a third wave surge of infections raised concerns about a shortage of beds in a country that has kept fatalities low so far.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 1,053 infections of the new coronavirus, a record fourth consecutive day of more than 1,000 cases.
South Korea has recorded 659 COVID-19 deaths out of 48,570 infections, a comparatively low mortality rate attributed to aggressive tracing and testing, which minimised the strain on hospitals, allowing them to focus on seriously ill patients.
The mitigation efforts made the country a global success story when many nations saw soaring infections, prompting wide lockdowns.
But the recent surge - stemming from widespread clusters across the country rather than the large, isolated outbreaks of the first two waves - has caused a severe shortage of hospital beds.
The health ministry's Central Disaster Management Headquarters on Friday ordered major general hospitals and national university hospitals to secure 1% of its licensed beds as dedicated beds for serious COVID patients, Yonhap reported on Saturday citing hospitals and regional governments.
Health ministry officials could not be immediately reached.
North Chungcheong province, 106 kms (66 miles) southeast of Seoul where infections at a nursing home and hospital caused 103 new cases in a day, does not have any intensive care beds left as of Friday, according to Yonhap.
Some 13 critical-care beds were available in greater Seoul, an area with almost 26 million people, it said.
Six people with COVID-19 have died in South Korea this month waiting for beds, and hundreds cannot get admitted as infections overload the health system, officials and media said on Friday.
Senior KDCA official Lim Sook-young told a news briefing the drain on hospital beds by COVID patients "disrupts the treatment of other emergency and serious patients".
The number of severely ill COVID patients reached 275 on Saturday, up from 97 on Dec. 1, KDCA data showed.
Despite the surge, the government has refrained from raising social distancing restrictions to the highest level, which would mean ordering 1.2 million business to suspend operations.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said on Friday that "social consensus" would be necessary for such a move, given the burden on businesses.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Chris Reese, William Mallard and Michael Perry)