South Korea MERS outbreak: 2nd hospital closed, interest rate cut
SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) — A second South Korean clinic has been forced to close, with staff, patients and visitors sent into quarantine, as the country attempts to curb the spread of the MERS virus for a third week.
Fourteen new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — one of them a pregnant woman — were confirmed Thursday, bringing the total number of cases to 122.
One of the 122 confirmed cases, a South Korean male, is being monitored by Chinese authorities since he arrived in the Chinese city of Guangdong in late May.
The South Korean outbreak is the biggest outside of Saudi Arabia, where the little-understood virus was first detected in 2012.
So far, 10 people in South Korea have died after contracting MERS and more than 3,800 people have been placed under quarantine. More than 950 people have been released from quarantine after they tested negative for MERS.
The situation led South Korea’s central bank to unexpectedly cut interest rates Thursday, out of concern that an outbreak of MERS will dampen growth and spending.
The Bank of Korea trimmed its key interest rate a quarter percentage point to 1.5% due to “concerns following the MERS outbreak about contractions in domestic demand activities such as consumption and in economic sentiment,” a statement read.
A day earlier, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s office announced that she had canceled her trip scheduled for Sunday to the United States in order to address the situation.
Medi Heal hospital, in Seoul’s Yangcheon district, became the second South Korean hospital forced closed Thursday, an official at Seoul’s City Hall told CNN.
The decision was made to close the hospital after one of the confirmed MERS patients had visited the hospital exhibiting severe symptoms.
Seventy-nine patients and 29 staff from the hospital had been discharged to be quarantined.
Officials believed that the patient who visited Mediheal had come into contact with 257 people both inside and outside the hospital.
The other South Korean hospital to close was St. Mary’s, in the city of Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul. Most of the MERS cases have come from that hospital and the Samsung Medical Center, based in Seoul’s glitzy Gangnam district.
At a briefing Thursday, South Korean hospitals would implement a “safe hospitals” program to separate suspected MERS patients from other patients.
Health minister Moon Hyung-pyo said all “general level” hospitals would cooperate with the scheme, by treating
patients with symptoms similar to MERS in separate facilities.
Park Sang-geun, Korean Hospital Association head, said that the new measures would mean the public did not have to worry about visiting hospitals — but that if they had MERS-like symptoms, they would be transferred to the designated facilities for MERS.
He stressed that with only 122 confirmed cases from 1320 quarantined, quarantined patients should not “worry too much.”
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Wednesday that eight people had been arrested for allegedly spreading false MERS-related rumors.
Five were suspected of spreading rumors that certain hospitals were treating MERS patients.
The outbreak in South Korea has had ripples elsewhere in Asia, with Hong Kong University cancelling academic exchange activities to South Korea and Middle Eastern countries “for the coming weeks,” according to a letter from the university.
Hong Kong and Macau both have raised a travel alert asking residents to avoid unnecessary travel to South Korea.
Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection said Thursday that 16 remaining tests of suspected MERS patients had come back negative — meaning that no cases of MERS infection had been found in the Chinese territory.
Hong Kong is particularly sensitive to the prospect of an outbreak as it endured hundreds of deaths from the SARS outbreak of 2002-3.
Disagreement over school closures
More than 2,400 schools remain shut in South Korea, including all kindergartens and elementary schools in Seoul’s Gangnam district.
All schools in Gyeonggi province are scheduled to stay closed until Friday.
In a diverging opinion with Korea’s education authorities, the World Health Organization urged reconsidering the closures given that “schools have not been linked to transmission of MERS.”
Of the over 100 MERS cases in South Korea, only one teenager has tested positive for MERS.
How to stop the spread
The case that began the South Korean outbreak was reported on May 20 after the Patient Zero visited four hospitals.
“The most important thing now is to stop the spread from hospitals,” said acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan.
Both WHO and Korean officials say the transmission of the virus has not hit the general public and remains in hospital clusters.
“Outside of hospitals so far, the virus has no effect on everyday life,” Choi said. “Everyone should go on as usual.”
By Tim Hume, KJ Kwon, Sol Han and Jung-eun Kim
CNN’s Madison Park, Bex Wright and Pamela Boykoff contributed to this report from Hong Kong.