By Kim Se-jeong
The Ministry of Health and Welfare has shown cautious optimism that the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) might be slowing down as it confirmed only one new case of infection on Friday.
The total number of confirmed cases stands at 166, but 30 MERS patients have returned home after recovering from fever and a shortness of breath. In contrast, one more death was reported, increasing the death toll to 24.
On Thursday, more than 6,700 remained under surveillance, but the ministry said almost 1,000 people under medical monitoring have recovered.
“Looking at the way things develop, we cautiously view the MERS outbreak as beginning to dwindle,” said a ministry official surnamed Jeong during a daily press briefing. “Yet, it’s too early to say that for sure. We are still closely watching new cases, especially those from the troubled hospitals.”
Kyung Hee University Hospital at Gangdong, Seoul, was the latest facility to deal with the crisis after a kidney dialysis patient was found to be infected on Thursday. The hospital has since suspended part of its services.
Two nurses who were in close contact with the patient tested negative for the deadly virus, according to the ministry. Six other nurses are in isolation. The ministry official said almost 110 people were believed to have come into contact with the patient.
Samsung Medical Center (SMC) meanwhile remains mired in the crisis. Suspending almost all its services, SMC is now contacting every single person who has visited the center for a test since the beginning of the outbreak. Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital in Gyeonggi Province, where the first patient stayed, resumed operations earlier this week.
The latest death was that of a 75-year-old patient who contracted the virus from the 14th patient in the SMC emergency room.
In addition, a newly confirmed MERS case, a 62-year-old man, contracted the virus while staying at SMC between May 25 and June 5 to take care of a family member.
A SMC doctor was among the 30 recovered patients who returned home. The 37-year old male had close contact with the 14th patient in the hospital’s emergency room last month. The doctor was the second confirmed doctor to recover. The first confirmed doctor, who had a public dispute with Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon over the outbreak, is believed to be in critical condition.
The ministry said the government is trying to assess how long before it can declare the end of the MERS outbreak.
“It is hard to know what indicates the end of the MERS outbreak — whether it’s simply when there are no new cases or something else. We are consulting within the government and will seek advice from the World Health Organization (WHO).”
However, the government’s optimism is tempered by the fact that there still remains a good chance that confirmed cases from troubled hospitals will materialize.
Head of the WHO Margaret Chan who is visiting Korea said on Thursday that MERS won’t spill over into community transmission, halting speculation that the virus will go airborne.
The government has attempted to calm the public’s fear. It said 251 MERS-free hospitals are up and running for those who stopped seeking medical care services for fear of contracting the virus.
MERS was first recorded in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and the current outbreak is the biggest outside the Middle East. Earlier this week, one person in Germany died of the virus. On Friday, the Thai authorities said an Oman national died of MERS in Thailand.