Gov’t is mildly chastised for MERS response

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Gov’t is mildly chastised for MERS response

The Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) criticized the government’s handling of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak last summer and recommended the dismissal of Korea’s top quarantine official and heavy penalties for eight government officials.

The BAI conducted a probe of 18 organizations in September and October, following the National Assembly’s August request for an investigation into the Ministry of Health and Welfare and Samsung Medical Center to determine how the MERS outbreak was handled.

In a Thursday briefing, the BAI said it asked the Health Ministry to dismiss Yang Byung-guk, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), and demote or suspend eight officials at the ministry.

The nine officials were accused of mishandling quarantines and epidemiological investigations in the early stages of the outbreak.

The CDC was found to be unprepared for the MERS outbreak despite recommendations by the World Health Organization to have a plan ready for such an event.

The probe also found that quarantine authorities waited too long to disclose the names of hospitals with MERS patients, which helped the disease spread. In the early stage of the outbreak, the ministry insisted on confidentiality to protect the hospitals, claiming that publicly naming them “would bring bigger chaos”.

The BAI also asked the ministry to cut the wages of seven government officials.

But the health minister at the time of the outbreak, Moon Hyung-pyo, was spared punishment. After Moon stepped down from his post in August, he was named head of the National Pension Service by President Park Geun-hye in December. He started the job early this month.

The BAI also accused Samsung Medical Center of failing to isolate the first MERS-infected patient and properly coordinate with quarantine officials.

Samsung Medical Hospital didn’t provide timely information on the people who had contact with the first MERS patient, it said.

A total of 91 people were infected at Samsung Medical Center.

The first MERS patient was confirmed on May 20, after which 185 more people fell sick. The outbreak killed 38 and thousands were quarantined.

On Dec. 23, health authorities declared the end of the outbreak.

BY KIM HYUNG-GU [kim.sohee0905@joongang.co.kr]

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