MERS Forces Total Sealing Off Of Two Hospitals

Quarantine workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant as a precaution against the spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome virus outside Wangsimni Subway Station in Seoul on Thursday.[AP/NEWSIS]

The Ministry of Health and Welfare Thursday sealed off two hospitals for the first time in the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) to prevent the kind of mass infections that came out of Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital and Samsung Medical Center.

Mediheal Medical Center in Seoul and Changwon SK Hospital in Changwon, South Gyeongsang, have been sealed off from the world. Patients and staff can’t leave and no one can enter or visit the facilities.

Each of the staff gave care to patients who were considered highly infectious.

Patient No. 98, who was infected with the disease by Patient No. 14 at Samsung Medical Center, was hospitalized at Mediheal Medical Center in Yangcheon District, southwestern Seoul, for three days from June 4.

A mother and daughter turn away from the emergency room of Mediheal Medical Center in Yangcheon District, western Seoul, on Thursday, after the health authorities sealed the hospital to prevent the spread of MERS.By Choi Seung-sik

“Patient No. 98 was at Mediheal Medical Center while he was very infectious,” said Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon in a meeting with 25 district governors of Seoul on Thursday. “We need a complete quarantine to prevent it from becoming the second Samsung Medical Center.”

Changwon SK Hospital is where Patient No. 115 was treated and currently 37 patients, nine of their relatives and 32 medical staff members are being isolated.

The government is also considering sealing off more hospitals visited by Patient No. 90, who was also infected at Samsung Medical Center by Patient No. 14. Patient No. 90, who began to exhibit symptoms from June 3, visited two hospitals in Okcheon, North Chungcheong, and died at the intensive care unit of Eulji University Hospital in Daejeon on Wednesday. About 30 patients in its intensive care unit are being isolated as a precaution.

The number of MERS cases grew to 122 as of Thursday with 14 new patients, including eight who contracted the disease at Samsung Medical Center in Seoul. That is where Patient No. 14, who contracted the disease directly from Patient No. 1 at Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital, spread the disease to more than 50 people. He stayed at Samsung from May 27 to 29. Most of those third-generation patients contracted the disease in the emergency room.

Patient No. 1, who contracted the disease on his business trip to Middle East, also ended up at Samsung, where he tested positive for MERS on May 20 after visiting three different hospitals and spreading it to up to 37 others.

The Health Ministry also announced one more fatality Thursday, Patient No. 83, a 75-year-old male who suffered from lung cancer. He contracted the disease from Patient No. 16 at Konyang University Hospital in Daejeon. The death toll rose to 10.

With three more people discharged from hospitals on Thursday, seven patients have fully recovered from MERS.

One of the 14 new patients announced by the ministry Thursday was considered a possible fourth-generation patient, a worrying development. But the likelihood receded as the day progressed.

That woman, who became Patient No. 115, was a 77-year-old outpatient visiting Samsung Medical Center’s orthopedics department on May 27, the day Patient No. 14 was taken to the emergency room. The orthopedics department is on the same floor as the emergency room but at a great distance, so authorities thought she may have contracted the virus from a third-generation patient, or, if from Patient No. 14, it would have to have been an airborne infection, also a troubling development.

Thursday afternoon, the hospital said Patient No. 115 used a restroom in the emergency room after she had an x-ray on May 27, and that’s probably where she contracted the disease. The doctors and nurses who took care of her are not exhibiting any MERS symptoms.

“We are conducting a detailed examination to figure out how Patient No. 115 caught the disease,” said an official of the Ministry of Health and Welfare on Thursday. “Some are suggesting a possible airborne infection, but so far it’s been reported that airborne transmissions aren’t likely.”

The government did not specify how five of the 14 new patients contracted the disease, increasing fears of fourth-generation infections. It later explained their test results came early on Thursday and epidemiological studies hadn’t been completed yet.

Among the five patients is a 35-year-old policeman, Patient No. 119. He is known to have met a friend, who traveled to Saudi Arabia, on May 26 and 28 and began to exhibit symptoms from May 31. Saudi Arabia is where the disease was first reported in 2012 and there have been 1,028 MERS cases including 451 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

But the friend tested negative for MERS.

Patient No. 119 worked on June 1 and 2 and was isolated at a state-run hospital after he tested positive for MERS in an initial examination on June 3. But his second test was negative and he was discharged on June 4. Then he was hospitalized for pneumonia at a local hospital in Asan, South Chungcheong, and was confirmed for MERS on Tuesday.

Given that he had contact with a number of other people after he was told he didn’t have MERS, the disease might have been transmitted to others. If it was, that could extend the Korean outbreak another two weeks.

The numbers of potential patients and hospitals that have treated MERS patients are only increasing. As of Thursday, 3,805 people are being quarantined. Of them, 3,591 are being restricted in their homes while 214 are being held in medical facilities.

With 11 new hospitals treating MERS patients or people possibly exposed, the list has grown to 55 hospitals, though nine are considered to have no infectious patients as the maximum latency period of two weeks has passed.

Seoul Mayor Park also discussed a controversy over an official at the city-run Seoul Medical Center in Jungnang District, eastern Seoul, who sent emails to about 90 fellow employees ordering them not to accept any MERS patients.

“We immediately dismissed him from his position,” Park said. “It was his personal opinion, not the center’s official position, and I apologize for it. The center treated nine people on that day and I promise it will never happen again.”

The Health Ministry also announced a detailed plan for “safe hospitals” on Thursday after Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo had a discussion with the Korea Medical Association, Korean Hospital Association and directors of major hospitals. Safe hospitals are medical facilities that completely separate respiratory disease patients from other patients.

“Designating safe hospitals aims to treat MERS patients separately and minimize MERS infections at the same time,” Moon said.

The number of schools temporarily closing due to the disease, which saw a steady increase, is now decreasing. As of 3 p.m. Thursday, the Ministry of Education said the total number of schools that cancelled classes or shut down completely is 2,431, lower than Wednesday’s 2,704.

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