Doctors at Samsung Medical Center bow to apologize for their poor handling of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) infections at the hospital during a press conference in Seoul, Sunday. Fourth from left is Song Jae-hoon, chief of the hospital. / Yonhap
Death toll rises to 15; confirmed cases to 146
By Kim Se-jeong
A virologist, who had an appointment at Samsung Medical Center (SMC), Saturday, canceled it indefinitely because the hospital, known to be the best in the nation, proved to be a second ground zero for the ongoing Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) epidemic.
“I wonder how it will regain its reputation after this MERS scandal,” he said with a deep sense of pessimism.
A second doctor from SMC was diagnosed with the disease, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Sunday. He is among 71 confirmed cases from SMC and the number is likely to go up as health authorities continue their epidemiological studies.
The doctor, 37, who worked in the hospital’s intensive care unit, is believed to have contracted the virus from the 14th patient who was admitted to the unit on May 27.
The doctor reportedly did not treat that patient, but worked with the first infected doctor, who is still fighting the disease.
Health authorities are concerned that many patients and hospital staff may have been exposed to the virus through the second doctor who treated patients until June 10 when he began showing symptoms.
The hospital didn’t isolate him before June 10, the authorities said.
His symptoms are believed to be light and authorities are trying to locate those with whom he came into contact.
On Sunday, a patient in Busan died, increasing the death toll from the virus to 15. Seven more cases were confirmed, increasing the total to 146. Four of the seven new patients were infected while visiting or being treated at SMC, the health and welfare ministry said.
SMC announced it will suspend services to contain the MERS outbreak.
During a press conference, Sunday, the hospital’s President Song Jae-hoon said until June 24, the medical center will stop receiving new outpatients; ban patient visits by families; shut down its emergency room, except for MERS patients; and halt surgical procedures unless they are absolutely necessary.
The nation’s No.1 medical center has 1,982 beds and treats 8,073 outpatients every day.
The hospital said Friday that one of its workers responsible for transporting patients was infected with the virus. It conducted check-ups on all 90 of his colleagues, but none showed any symptoms.
“We are terribly sorry for falling short in taking care of employees,” Song said.
The hospital employee moved the 14th patient to the intensive care unit after he arrived at SMC via ambulance from a bus terminal in southern Seoul.
Song said the employee is believed to have had contact with many people, including patients, their family members and medical care providers. Health authorities are locating and isolating those who were exposed to him.
Hours before the announcement, Seoul’s Mayor Park Won-soon slammed SMC for its incapability in handling the situation effectively and criticized the health ministry for giving Samsung the authority to act alone.
“The government and the Seoul city government must take the lead in the effort to contain the spread of the virus, instead of giving Samsung Medical Center full authority,” Park said.
Song dismissed Park’s criticism. “Since the 14th case was confirmed, we are maintaining close consultation with the authorities.”
The Seoul government also proposed to form a special investigation team consisting of representatives from the health ministry, SMC and the city government to look into the outbreak at SMC. It also urged the central government to turn SMC into an exclusive MERS isolation facility.
The city government said it will contact SMC’s 2,944 non-regular workers for tests. The most recent patient who transported patients was on a non-regular contract.
Among seven new cases was a 42-year-old man who visited SMC as an outpatient. Three got the virus after sharing the emergency room with the 14th patient. One was a student at Chung-Ang University and the news made the school temporarily close down one of its buildings where the student had been staying.
On Sunday afternoon, President Park Geun-hye visited the Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul, which has an isolation facility. She canceled her U.S. trip last week.