South Korean health officials have instructed crematoria to burn more bodies per day and funeral homes are adding more refrigerators to store the dead as families struggle with funeral arrangements amid a spike in COVID-19 deaths.
The country has been dealing with a major outbreak of the coronavirus driven by the fast-moving variant of Omicron, which has compromised a robust response to the pandemic and led to a spike in hospitalizations and deaths.
Officials have already allowed 60 crematoriums across the country to burn for longer hours starting last week, raising their total capacity from about 1,000 to 1,400 cremations per day.
But that wasn’t enough to meaningfully alleviate the backlog of corpses 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 epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The backlog also moved to funeral homes in hospitals and other facilities, as families struggled to make funeral arrangements due to long waits for cremations.
Senior Health Ministry official Sun Youngrai said during a briefing that officials will direct regional crematoriums to increase furnace operations from five to seven times a day, matching levels at crematoria in the greater metropolitan area.
Late works in Seoul
Crematoriums will also be required to receive reservations from outside their areas — something many facilities do not usually do — to reduce backlogs in the Seoul area, Son said.
The 1,136 funeral homes in hospitals and other facilities are currently able to house about 8,700 bodies, and officials will ask them to increase their capacity by adding more refrigerators or rooms with refrigeration systems.
“There have been regional differences in COVID-19 deaths due to different factors, such as the size of the elderly population in each community, and there is also a difference in the cremation capacity that each region can handle,” Son said.
The country reported 384 new COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, the sixth consecutive day of more than 300, including 429 cases on Thursday. The number of virus patients in serious or critical condition has reached 1,104. Nearly 70 percent of intensive care units designated to treat COVID-19 have been filled.
Health workers diagnosed 353,980 new infections in the last 24 hours, down from Thursday’s high of more than 621,000, but the country typically reports higher case numbers in the middle of the week.
The increase in the Omicron index was much larger than expected by government health authorities, who continue to express cautious hope that the outbreak is nearing its peak.
There is also a possibility that the spread will be prolonged due to the transmissible Omicron variant known as BA.2, said Jeong Eun-kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Agency for Disease Control and Prevention.
High demand for funeral halls
South Korea has a much lower death rate from COVID-19 in relation to population size than the United States or many European countries, which officials attribute to higher vaccination rates. But some experts say the country may be on the cusp of a dangerous surge in hospitalizations, given the weeks-long lags between infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
The funeral home is already feeling the crisis. Oh Seung-hyun, an official at Seoul National University Hospital, said the hospital’s 13 funeral halls have been almost completely occupied in recent weeks. Families were often forced to stay a day or two longer than the usual three-day funeral procedures due to the slow cremations.
“Even when there is a hall open, it is booked within an hour,” he said.
Kim Min-young, an official at a Seoul city government-run crematorium in nearby Paju, said the facility had been running its furnaces until 10 p.m. while cremating 131 bodies per day, up from the usual daily limit of 91. She said she still waits about five days to book.
Omicron has forced South Korea to abandon a stringent response to COVID-19 based on mass lab testing, aggressive contact tracing and quarantine to focus limited medical resources on priority groups, including people 60 and older with cases pre-existing medical
Health officials recently relaxed quarantine restrictions and border controls significantly and stopped requiring adults to show proof of vaccination or negative tests when entering crowded places such as restaurants, so that more public and health workers can respond to the rapid expansion of home remedies.
Nearly two million virus carriers with mild or moderate symptoms have been asked to isolate at home to save hospital space.
Citing the growing impact of the pandemic on service sector businesses, the government has relaxed social distancing rules in recent weeks, allowing longer hours for indoor dining and larger social gatherings. But some experts say officials are putting the hospital system at risk by prioritizing economic concerns over epidemic ones.