Schools choose to close as MERS keeps spreading

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Schools choose to close as MERS keeps spreading

As panic spreads in some parts of Korea over a fatal respiratory disease from the Middle East, more than 500 schools across the country decided on temporary shutdowns.

With five new patients testing positive for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) on Wednesday, the total number of MERS cases in Korea rose to 30. That includes two patients who died Monday.

“Schools are where students come together and where their safety must come first,” said Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea on Wednesday.

Hwang said principals or heads of education facilities may shut down their schools after talking to local education offices.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, a total of 544 schools, including 196 kindergartens, 273 elementary schools, 55 middle schools, seven high schools, nine special schools and four universities, decided to cancel classes or close completely, Hwang said, and the number is increasing as more and more schools are considering closing.

Make-up classes will be held during vacations for the cancelled classes, said the minister.

Some international schools in Seoul and Gyeonggi are also ending their spring semesters a few days early this week due to MERS, including Seoul International School, Korea International School and Gyeonggi Suwon International School.

Local education offices are also beginning to monitor schools in their areas to follow preventive guidelines and check body temperatures of school staff and students to detect possible MERS patients. Also, schools are advised to minimize students’ group activities.

However, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which is in charge of taking preventive measures or order quarantines, opposed the Education Ministry’s decision on Wednesday, saying shutdowns are an overreaction.

“Cancelling classes is not necessary and it is not right from the medical perspective,” said Kwon Jun-wuk, an official of the central MERS countermeasure headquarters under the health ministry. “We are only considering providing lists of potential patients so that they can be prevented from going to schools.”

“In the outbreak of novel influenza A [in 2009], it was appropriate to shut schools because that disease often spreads among children, but MERS is different,” Prof. Kim Woo-joo, chairman of the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases, added. “If [potential patients] have children, it is enough to keep them isolated at home.”

In the meantime, MERS appears to be getting out of the government’s control as the number of patients and suspected patients continues to increase.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare announced five more confirmed MERS cases on Wednesday, including one more third-generation patient. The total number of MERS cases in Korea rose to 30 as of Wednesday and two of them, Patients No. 6 and 25, died on Monday.

Of the 30 patients, 26 contracted the disease after direct contact with Patient No. 1 or his body fluids, including saliva and vomit. Three are third-generation patients. They contracted the disease from contact with one of the other 26.

“Four of the new patients contracted the disease directly from Patient No. 1 when they stayed at the same hospital in Gyeonggi from May 15 to 17,” Kwon said. “Two of them are patients and two others are family members of other patients.”

Patient No. 1, 68, tested positive on May 20 after returning from a 16-day business trip to the Middle East. He flew back to Korea on May 4 and began to exhibit symptoms from May 11. He visited four different hospitals until he was correctly diagnosed with MERS. Most of the infections thus far occurred at the second hospital, where he stayed from May 15 to 17.

The new third-generation patient, Patient No. 30, was infected while he shared the same hospital room with Patient No. 16 from May 22 to 28 in Daejeon.

So far, Patient No. 16 is the only infected person who has spread the disease aside from Patient No. 1. He was found to have transmitted the virus to two more people, Patients No. 23 and 24, while he stayed in the same six-patient room at another hospital from May 28 to 30.

Of the 28 patients alive, Patients No. 11, 14 and 16 are in unstable condition. They all stayed at the second hospital visited by Patient No. 1. Three others, Patients No. 2, 5 and 7, are preparing to be discharged from hospitals because they have recovered. The other 22 are in stable condition.

The government is trying to track down those who have had contact with all 30 patients and said on Wednesday that 1,364 people are currently under isolation, a huge leap from 791 on Tuesday.

Of them, 1,261 are being restricted at home and 103 are in medical facilities.

But the government seems to be having trouble enforcing the quarantines. One person disappeared on Monday for about 12 hours.

A 51-year-old woman residing in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, was found to have travelled to Gochang, North Jeolla, on Monday with 15 other people, including her husband, to play golf. The health authorities could not reach her by phone, so visited her residence. When they found she was not there, they requested location tracking by the police and finally sent her back home at around 10 p.m. on Monday.

The ministry says it is doing its best to prevent the further spread of the disease, but it refuses to disclose the names of hospitals visited by MERS patients. And that is causing panicked rumors to spread.

“Given the current situation, it is very obvious that we will only see more fear and prejudice if the list is released,” said Kwon.

However, the health authority came under pressure from both the ruling and main opposition parties on Wednesday.

In a meeting with the ruling Saenuri Party’s supreme council members and senior lawmakers, Chairman Kim Moo-sung said, “While groundless rumors are spreading, [the government] should provide precise information to people, like whether the disease is transmitted through the air or which areas people should avoid.”

Saenuri floor leader Yoo Seong-min also called for more disclosures by saying, “Unconfirmed information about hospitals, patients’ infection routes and cures are going viral through social network services.”

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) called for disclosures, raising the crisis level, a joint public-private response system for MERS and compensation for those who are being isolated.

“The government is flustered and trying to blame people for spreading false rumors,” said Rep. Choo Mi-ae, who’s chairing the NPAD’s MERS countermeasure committee. “[The government] is being negligent in establishing measures to reassure the public.”

President Park Geun-hye also held an emergency meeting at the Blue House with experts from both the public and private sectors for the first time since the outbreak.

“We need to examine the current situation and problems in our response system,” Park said in the meeting.

BY KIM BONG-MOON [kim.bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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