President Park Geun-hye announced Wednesday the creation of a special task force consisting of civil medical experts to act as a control tower, while expanding the pan-governmental countermeasures headquarters to cope with the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome.
The disease has killed two people since the first case was confirmed on May 20 and led to the isolation of 1,364 people -- a whopping increase from 791 on Tuesday. Among them, 1,261 are staying at home, while 103 are placed at government-certified medical facilities.
Currently, 398 are being considered suspected patients, while 99 are currently being tested for diagnosis. As of Wednesday morning, the number of confirmed MERS patients in Korea had risen to 30.
“With the new task force team, I think it is necessary to inform all citizens about the causes and origin of the outbreak after organizing very thorough research,” Park said in an emergency meeting.
“I’d also like to discuss ways to protect those who are more vulnerable, including students and the elderly.”
Tourists wearing masks walk along a street in Myeong-dong, downtown Seoul, Wednesday. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)
The task force decided to designate medical facilities specialized for MERS diagnosis, treatment and isolation in as many regions as possible nationwide.
"We hope for all health care workers to make prompt diagnosis of potential MERS patients, so they can be treated at those designated hospitals,” Cheong Wa Dae’s senior employment and welfare secretary Choi Won-young said.
“We will also be transparent and share all information about the outbreak with our citizens.”
The Health Ministry is also verifying the cases of two suspected MERS patients in Busan, including a 29-year-old Saudi Arabian woman who is five-months pregnant and has been showing symptoms including a fever and vomiting since Monday.
Earlier in the day, Korea’s top education official said more than 250 schools in four cities and provinces have decided to temporarily cancel classes to prevent possible MERS infection among children.
A total of 280 schools and kindergartens in four MERS-affected regions -- Seoul and Gyeonggi, South Chungcheong and North Chungcheong provinces -- have suspended or are planning to suspend classes. Among them, 183 are in Gyeonggi Province.
So far, there are no recorded infections among students, nor cases of transmission in Korea outside the medical facilities.
The Health Ministry called the decision “unnecessary and groundless,” as statistics show that children rarely get infected by the MERS virus worldwide, while those aged 50 or older with chronic health conditions are more vulnerable.
“When schools closed down during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, it made sense, because the particular virus was more contagious among schoolchildren,” said Dr. Kim Woo-joo, who is currently working with Cheong Wa Dae’s special task force to tackle MERS.
“But as we have repeatedly stressed before, MERS isn’t as contagious as SARS and all the confirmed cases so far took place in medical facilities, not schools. We do agree that children who have contacted confirmed MERS patients must be isolated and prevented from showing up at school. But closing down schools now is not necessary.”
According to a study by Dr. Lee Jae-gab from Hallym University Medical Center, which researched a total of 1,018 MERS cases overseas, the fatality rate of those who had chronic illnesses, including cancer and lung diseases, prior to being diagnosed with MERS was four times higher than those without any chronic conditions. The rates were 44.3 percent and 10.7 percent, respectively.
The Health Ministry also stood firm on its decision not to release a list of facilities where MERS patients have either stayed or visited. The ministry, however, confirmed Wednesday that a total of 14 facilities have received confirmed MERS patients at least once during the outbreak. Among them, three are small clinics, while 11 are general hospitals.
Instead of releasing the names of the facilities, the government distributed a list of every suspected and confirmed patient as well as the names of the 14 facilities to all clinics and hospitals in the country Wednesday.
The list will strictly be shared among health care workers and health authorities for the sole purpose of prompt diagnosis of potential MERS patients only, said Kwon Jun-wook, a senior Health Ministry official leading an emergency task force team.
Among the five newly confirmed patients, four of them are believed to have been infected by the first patient from May 15 to 18, at the same hospital where more than 20 had already been confirmed as infected by the 68-year-old.
As of Wednesday afternoon, a total of 24 out of the 26 patients who were infected by the first patient had been infected at the particular facility. Questions are being raised over the hospital’s sanitary conditions, as well as sterilization. It is also no longer clear whether the first patient was the sole spreader of the disease at the facility, as the Health Ministry currently claims.
The first patient only stayed at the facility from May 15 to 17, and the incubation period -- two to a maximum of 14 days -- of those who stayed with and may have been infected by him already ended Sunday. Yet a total of nine patients who stayed at the facility from May 15 to 17 have been diagnosed with MERS since Monday.
To this, Kwon from the Health Ministry said the patients had already been showing symptoms prior to their official diagnosis. For example, the 26th patient was diagnosed Tuesday, but had been experiencing symptoms, including a fever, since May 21. However, one of the nine patients started showing symptoms Monday, beyond the maximum incubation period.
The remaining patient is believed to have been infected by the 16th confirmed patient at a different clinic between May 22 and 28. The 60-year-old man is the third to be infected by the 16th patient, who visited a total of three hospitals while infected, including the one where he stayed with the first patient.
The Health Ministry said three patients are currently unstable, while three others have almost fully recovered.
Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry said it has set up a task force to prevent the MERS virus from spreading to service personnel. As part of the measure, any enlisted candidates who shows MERS-like symptoms will be immediately quarantined, and reservists who have recently visited the Middle East region will be allowed to delay their mandatory training session, the ministry said.
By Claire Lee (email@example.com