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Coronavirus

Thailand faces hospital bed shortage amid 3rd COVID wave

Potential health care collapse causes authorities to consider home isolation

A nurse in an intensive care unit treats a patient suffering from COVID-19 at King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital in Bangkok on May 12.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- A third wave of COVID-19 cases characterized by fierce new variants is threatening to inundate Thailand's health care system, with hospitals facing bed shortages and medical authorities considering home isolation for asymptomatic cases.

Thai health care officials are scrambling to deal with emerging COVID clusters throughout the country. Several major public hospitals as well as large medical universities in Bangkok have stopped testing for the disease because they are running out of beds.

On June 26, the country recorded 4,161 cases and a record high 51 deaths. Most of the new infections were in Bangkok, which remains classified as a zone of maximum control for the disease. The startling increase is in stark contrast to last year when Thailand won praise from the international community for keeping its daily case count in double digits.

New confirmed cases stand at around 2,000 to 4,000 per day while recovered cases are about 1,500 per day. This means the country has been forced to deal with around 1,000 hospitalizations from the disease, with many of these in need of intensive care units, the supply of which is running out.

As of June 28, the cumulative number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the country stood at 220,990. While 174,845 have recovered and been discharged, there are still around 46,145 people being hospitalized in a country that has about 40,500 beds. With COVID surging again, the government is hard-pressed to keep the situation from spiraling further out of control.

"I would like to send a loud warning that the situation in Bangkok is like a bomb that is ready to explode," said Dr. Adune Ratanawichtrasin of Siriraj Hospital at Mahidol University. 

Other major hospitals such as Ramathibodi and Chulalongkorn also ran out of beds.

But Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul disagreed with Adune's assessment, telling reporters on June 25, "The ministry will not allow the public health system to collapse. No one should use this term."

Anutin said all parties need to work closely together to improve the situation and the government is ready to tap all public health resources to solve the problem. However, he did not say how he would recruit more health care workers, as their ranks are already strained, drawing criticism from the public over government mismanagement.

The simmering crisis has also fueled the anger of anti-government groups such as the youth-led pro-democracy movement and the Red Shirts, both of which staged protests over the weekend.

Despite being relatively small, the protests alarmed officials, who were concerned that they could lead to a rise in new infections.

Though there is no evidence of an uptick in cases directly related to the weekend demonstrations, the number of confirmed cases hit a new daily high of 5,406 on Monday, despite Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha having ordered a partial lockdown in Bangkok to prevent large gatherings.

As the situation continues to deteriorate, the Medical Services Department has recommended that asymptomatic COVID-19 patients isolate at home to avoid exacerbating the hospital bed shortage. Patients will be given a thermometer and an oximeter to monitor their condition and be put on favipiravir antiviral medication if needed.

These measures are unlikely to dampen public anger amid new reports of people dying of COVID-19 at home due to the shortage of hospital beds.

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