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

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) – Health officials in South Korea have instructed crematories to burn more bodies per day and funeral homes to add more refrigerators to store the dead as families struggle with funeral arrangements amid a rise in COVID-19 deaths.

The country has been dealing with a massive coronavirus outbreak driven by the fast-moving Omicron variant, which has compromised a once robust pandemic response and is driving up hospitalisations and fatalities.

Officials have already allowed the 60 crematories across country to burn for longer hours starting last week, which raised their combined capacity from around 1,000 to 1,400 cremations per day.

But that hasn’t been enough to meaningfully ease the 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 centre 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.

Senior Health Ministry official Son Youngrae said during a briefing that officials will instruct regional crematories to increase furnace operations from five times to seven times a day, which would match the levels at crematories in the greater capital area.

Crematories will also be asked to receive reservations from outside their regions – something many facilities don’t typically do – to reduce the backlog in the Seoul region, Son said.

Digital screens showing safety precautions against the coronavirus displayed in a subway train in in Seoul, South Korea. PHOTO: AP