By Claire Lee
Seoul confirmed its 14th and 15th Middle East respiratory syndrome cases Sunday, surpassing Qatar as the country with the fourth most MERS cases in the world. The hospital where more than 10 people are believed to have been infected by the first confirmed patient prior to his official diagnosis has been temporarily shut down.
Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo offered his apology on Sunday for the government’s poor handling of the potential MERS patients, and announced that a new task force, which consists of government authorities as well as civil medical experts, has been established to combat the spread of the disease.
“We are considering this coming week as the crucial turning point where the situation can either get worse or better,” the minister said during a press meeting in Seoul.
“We believe all of the 14 cases, except the very first case, are secondary infection cases. The government is doing its best to prevent tertiary infection. And in order to do this, we need cooperation from all health care workers and citizens.”
The first confirmed patient, quarantined as of May 20, had visited four different medical clinics and hospitals in the course of ten days prior to his diagnosis, from May 11 to 20.
The incubation period of MERS is two to 14 days, and all of the confirmed patients contacted the first patient, who is believed to be the sole spreader of MERS in Korea, from May 15 to 17. As the first patient stayed at another clinic -- the last of the four -- prior to his diagnosis from May 17 to 20, more people may be diagnosed this week as the incubation period of those who may have been infected in the specific medical facility ends on Thursday.
Among the 14 patients who are believed to be infected by him, 12 of them worked or stayed at the same facility with the 68-year-old who was being treated there as an inpatient from May 15 to 17. The facility is the second of the four clinics he visited or stayed at before being quarantined.
The remaining two are health care workers who treated the first patient prior to his diagnosis, at two different medical clinics, on May 15 and 17, respectively. The average age of all 15 patients is 53.1 years old.
As the number of confirmed patients rose from 1 to 15 within only 11 days, there has been a growing public demand for the government to identify the now-temporarily closed hospital where 12 people were infected. Rumors claiming certain hospitals to be avoided have been going viral since last week, especially via social media and KakaoTalk.
The government said hospitals that are related to any infectious diseases cannot be identified according to its protocols, as such facilities and those who stay there can easily be targets of social stigmatization. The Health Ministry and the police also announced that those who spread such rumors online can face punishment.
The Health Ministry has been under fire for its inept handling of the spread of MERS, especially after the diagnosis of the fourth patient whose earlier request to be quarantined had been rejected by the authorities.
The government also failed to prevent the tenth patient, who is the son of the third patient and the younger brother of the fourth, from going overseas on May 26. Although he wasn’t diagnosed with MERS prior to leaving the country for China, he had already been showing symptoms including a fever.
He was eventually diagnosed with MERS in China on Friday. Seoul’s failure to prevent him from leaving the country left 165 passengers and crew members onboard with him on the same flight at potential risk of infection. Once arriving in Hong Kong by plane, the man traveled to China by taking two buses. According to Chinese news outlets, it’s not known how many passengers were on the buses.
To prevent tertiary infection cases, Health Minister Moon asked the public to report to the authorities if they are experiencing MERS symptoms -- a high fever and coughing -- after visiting the Middle East, as well as to wash their hands properly and to wear masks in public places. He also urged all health care workers to be alert of the situation and file a report immediately if they come across a patient who may have MERS.
On top of the two newly confirmed cases, an enlisted soldier, as well as 30 of his colleagues, were isolated on Sunday as he reported that he spent time with his mother, who was later diagnosed with MERS, during his recent break on May 12. Although quarantined, the soldier and his colleagues are currently not showing any symptoms.
MERS is known to be caused by coronaviruses, a large family of viruses that cause a range of illnesses in humans from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome.
There is no known cure or vaccine for MERS, which has a fatality rate of 40.7 percent.
More than 95 percent of the confirmed cases worldwide were in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The two countries have the highest number of MERS patients ― 996 and 74, respectively ― followed by Jordan and Korea.