South Korea’s Covid-19 deaths strain crematories, hospitals

Mar 22, 2022: South Korea health authorities have instructed crematoriums to burn more bodies daily and add more refrigerators to funeral homes to store the dead as COVID-19 death toll rises amid families struggling to make funeral arrangements. 

The country is battling a major corona virus outbreak of the fast-moving Omicron variety, which is compromising a once strong response from the country and is increasing hospital admissions and deaths.

Authorities have already allowed 60 cemeteries across the country to burn for long hours starting last week, increasing their combined capacity from about 1,000 to 1,400 a day.

There is a backlog of bodies waiting to be cremated in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, which is home to half of South Korea’s 52 million people and the center of its COVID-19 outbreak.

The backlog has also trickled down to funeral homes at hospitals and other facilities, where families have struggled to make funeral arrangements because of the longer wait for cremations.

According to senior Health Ministry official Son Youngrae,  the country’s 1,136 funeral homes at hospitals and other facilities are currently capable of housing some 8,700 bodies, and officials will ask them to increase their capacity by adding more refrigerators or rooms with cooling systems.

“There have been regional differences in COVID-19 deaths because of various factors such as the size of the elderly population in each community, and there’s also a difference in the capacity of cremations each region can handle,” Son said.

Health workers diagnosed 353,980 new infections in the latest 24 hours, down from Thursday’s single-day high of over 621,000, but the country typically reports larger case numbers midweek.

The omicron surge is fueled because of a highly transmissible omicron subvariant known as BA.2.

Oh Seong-hyeon, an official at the Seoul National University Hospital, said that the hospital’s 13 funeral halls have almost always been fully occupied in recent weeks. Families have often been forced to stay a day or two longer than the typical three-day funeral proceedings because of slow cremations.

A crematory run by the Seoul city government reported operating its furnaces until 10 p.m. while cremating 131 bodies per day, up from its normal daily limit of 91. But families are still waiting around five days to reserve.

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