Cooperation with WHO will be strengthened, says acting PM

By Jung Min-ho

The government Sunday revealed the names of 24 hospitals and clinics that have been treating patients for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

This disclosure came more than two weeks after the outbreak was first reported, and as a result of the near-panic the government’s secrecy has created.

Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, where the nation’s first and 36 other MERS cases have been confirmed, and Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, the source of 17 other patients, are among the hospitals highlighted in the list.

Speaking at the government complex in Sejong City, Deputy Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan said, “From now on, everything about the development of the epidemic will be open to the public.”

He also said that he will strengthen cooperation with the international community through the World Health Organization.

The list includes a total of 11 hospitals in Gyeonggi Province, seven in Seoul, three in South Chungcheong Province, two in Daejeon and one in North Jeolla Province.

At six of the facilities, patients were diagnosed with MERS, while at the other 18 patients were treated before they were confirmed to have the virus at the former six institutions.

“MERS has been spreading across these hospitals, which has forced us to impose strict control over them,” Choi said. “This is part of the government’s effort to put an end to the epidemic as early as possible. ”

Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo was criticized for doing a poor job in sharing information about MERS with the public and local governments, including the names of affected hospitals, despite persistent demands for it. He said he did not want to stoke up unnecessary fear

This sudden policy shift for coping with MERS came two days after President Park Geun-hye said that “all the MERS-related information should be open to the public promptly and transparently. ”

However, since revealing the list of hospitals, the ministry has come under further criticism for giving out incorrect information about several of the facilities, such as wrong locations or names. It subsequently amended its list, drawing a negative reaction from the public for its poor management of the issue.

Choi said the government will make an all-out effort to bring down the infection rate of MERS by the middle of June, which he calls a “critical” period, considering the virus’ incubation period of two weeks.

“We will mobilize all the possible resources from local governments, military, schools and the private sector for this effort,” he said. “We will also encourage experts from the private sector to share their medical knowledge.”

Yet he said the government is not planning to upgrade the MERS alert level from the current “watch” to “warning. ”

“MERS has not yet spread through communities,” he said. “So far, all the cases have been confined to hospitals. So, we won’t raise the alert level, but we’d like to say that what we are doing to contain the virus is indeed on the level of lsquowarning’ or higher”

He said the government will use reserved funds and other disaster management funds to cope with the disease.

“We ask for everyone’s cooperation in keeping unnecessary confusion from spreading,” Choi said. “The infection is not airborne. With proper quarantine and hygiene, it won’t be so widespread,”

He noted that what concerns him more than MERS itself is fear of the virus, saying it is still “very unlikely” it will spread beyond hospitals.

Korea may become the second-worst affected country following Saudi Arabia, where its first patient was diagnosed with the MERS in 2012. In Korea, 64 people have been confirmed ?five of whom have died ?and more than 1,800 people have been quarantined at ministry-designated hospitals or ordered to stay at home without contacting others. The United Arab Emirates has the second largest number of patients so far with 76.