Time for a plan

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Time for a plan

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A 22-year-old woman from the United Arab Emirates suspected of having Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) was diagnosed negative, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. While we are relieved, some things remain unknown. The patient, who had been isolated for treatment at Kangbuk Samsung Hospital, returned to her hotel. It took four hours for the police to find her. If she really had MERS, then dozens of hotel staff members would have to be isolated, and those who were present in her course would have gone through the MERS scare we saw last year.

The response of the hospital and CDC was reasonable. The hospital had detected suspected symptoms outside the emergency room and isolated her. The CDC worked with the police to find her. The real problem is a loophole in the law. The law allows a suspected patient who refuses to be isolated to be quarantined forcibly. Article 42 of the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, revised in December 2015 by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, states that the head of a city, county or ward can order a person suspected of being infected to be quarantined if he or she refuses to be tested. However, this only applies when public authorities are involved. Private hospitals have no means of keeping patients against their will. A Kangbuk Samsung Hospital source said that the hospital cannot refuse when a patient wants to be discharged. He added that it was especially tricky, as the patient was a foreigner. Another major hospital source said that when the patient refused to be isolated, all they could do was convince the patient not to run away.

But it is hard to change the law. There are human rights concerns if a private agency is allowed to forcibly isolate an individual who is simply suspected of a disease. The only alternative is to have public authorities involved early on. Experts ask for a manual that can be used in the field. Choi Jae-wook, a professor of medicine at Korea University, said there should be specific guidelines within the boundaries of the law, such as public health center staff and police being immediately dispatched upon a report.

The case led public health authorities to come up with a plan. The CDC held a meeting on April 14 to discuss quarantine measures for suspected patients. A Ministry of Health and Welfare official said that the ministry is aware of the challenges in prompt responses to patients refusing to be isolated at odd hours or weekends, and said the ministry would prepare a detailed manual. In order to prevent another MERS crisis, health authorities need to find the loopholes and close them.

Next month will be the one-year anniversary of the MERS outbreak. We may be struck again if we lack a proper quarantine manual.
The author is a national news reporter for the JoongAng Ilbo.


JoongAng Ilbo, April 15, Page 29

BY CHUNG JONG-HOON

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