The Korean government on Friday named the hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, where 71 per cent of all confirmed Middle East respiratory syndrome cases in Korea have occurred since May 20, backtracking on its previous stance to withhold a list of affected facilities.
Visitors to the facility ― now identified as Pyeongtaek St. Mary's Hospital ― from May 15-29 have been urged to report themselves to the authorities.
As of Friday afternoon, the virus had killed four people, infected 42 and pushed public health officials to quarantine more than 1,800 others. The Seoul Municipal Government is separately placing some 1,500 more people in isolation.
"We have decided to take more proactive measures for those who either stayed at or visited the specific facility, as an overwhelming number of the infection cases ― 30 out of 42 ― took place at the hospital," Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo said.
In spite of strong public demand and even repeated requests from Hong Kong health authorities, Seoul has been standing firm on its decision not to share the names of MERS-affected hospitals ― to prevent "unnecessary fear and stigmatization."
To date, 14 facilities have been confirmed as MERS-affected hospitals, meaning they have received confirmed MERS patients at least once during the outbreak. The Health Ministry said it had no plan to share the names of the 13 remaining facilities.
Also on Friday, President Park Geun-hye visited one of the 17 government-certified facilities where confirmed MERS patients are being treated in quarantine to encourage the medical staff. It was her first on-site visit related to MERS since the first case was confirmed more than two weeks ago.
Pyeongtaek St. Mary's Hospital, which was shut down on May 29, is one of the four medical facilities that the nation's first confirmed patient either visited or stayed at prior to his diagnosis on May 20.
The first patient stayed at the facility from May 15 to 17. Up until Wednesday, the Health Ministry had been claiming that the 68-year-old was the sole spreader of the disease in the facility, meaning all of the confirmed patients who contracted the virus there were infected by him only, not by each other.
Yet on Friday it was revealed that two of the six newly confirmed patients caught the virus while staying at the hospital from May 20-28. During this period, the first confirmed patient was not present in the facility. The newly reported cases prove that tertiary infection occurred at the hospital before it was shut down on May 29.
Minister Moon also said the air-conditioning system of the hospital, as well as its lack of ventilators, may have attributed to the intense spread of MERS among its patients. Civil experts who work with the government also confirmed that the virus was found in the temporarily-closed facility's bathrooms and doorknobs. The hospital, which houses about 400 beds, opened in February and its building is reportedly less than a year old.
Fears of the deadly virus is only expanding as the Seoul municipal government abruptly announced on Thursday night that the 35th confirmed patient, a medical doctor, may have exposed more than 1,500 Seoul residents to the deadly virus.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon claimed that the doctor, who treated the 14th confirmed MERS patient at a large general hospital in Seoul on May 27, attended three large-scale conferences over the weekend while showing symptoms of MERS.
The Health Ministry on Thursday rebuked Seoul City's claim that it was limiting information on the infected doctor, and claimed it has shared all relevant information on the tracking of the medical professional.
According to Mayor Park, the doctor started showing mild symptoms, mainly coughing, on May 29, but still attended the events in which more than 1,500 people attended. He did so despite being advised to stay home and being aware of the possibility of his infection, the municipal government said.
The doctor, however, said he never "treated" the 14th patient, although they were both in the same emergency room for less than an hour on May 27. The doctor in fact treated an embolism patient who later was quarantined after being placed near the 14th patient at the facility.
The medical professional claimed that he hadn't even been informed that the 14th MERS patient was in the same emergency room with him and his patient on May 27 until May 31.
"I learned on May 31 that the patient I treated on May 27 was quarantined for possible MERS infection. I only attended two of the three events that the city government has mentioned," he said during an interview with a local newspaper.
"As I began to experience unusual symptoms, I reported to the authorities on May 31 and was quarantined at home on the same day. I was eventually placed at a government-certified medical facility on Tuesday, the same day I was informed about my MERS diagnosis."
The doctor said that although he was coughing on Saturday ― the day he showed up at two large-scale events attended by 1,565 others ― it was because of his chronic sinus infection, not MERS. According to him, he started experiencing MERS symptoms, including unusual sputum production, on May 31. Yet health experts said his claims could not be proven, as it is hard to differentiate MERS symptoms ― usually fever and coughing ― with symptoms of other common diseases such as the flu.
"The incubation period of MERS is two to 14 days," said a doctor who wished to remain anonymous. "He started coughing two days after staying with the MERS patient in the same room. So no one can be really sure whether he was coughing on May 29 because of MERS or because of his sinus infection."
Regardless, Seoul Mayor Park announced that the municipal government is launching its own countermeasures to combat the disease. All 1,565 individuals who were present at the events where the infected doctor attended will be quarantined, he said. As of Thursday morning, the city government managed to contact 84.2 per cent of the 1,565, advising them to stay home, the mayor said.
Meanwhile, all of the newly confirmed cases are believed to be tertiary infection cases. One of them has been identified as an air force officer serving at the Osan Air Base in Pyeaongtaek.
Following the first MERS case in the military, the Defence Ministry quarantined 164 soldiers and six civilians. Among them, a navy staff sergeant visited her grandfather, who later was diagnosed with MERS, at a Daejeon-based hospital on May 29. Although currently asymptomatic, she is scheduled to be tested for the infection.
The fourth death occurred Thursday. The deceased is a 76-year-old who became the third confirmed patient on May 21. He had been suffering from preexisting medical conditions including asthma and cancer before his MERS diagnosis.
A total of 1,317 schools and kindergartens, including 15 universities, cancelled classes to prevent possible infection as of Friday afternoon nationwide.
While the number of cases keeps growing, the Health Ministry began investigating if the virus has mutated in Korea and become more contagious. The investigation results are set to be released soon.
A special inspection team from the World Health Organisation is to arrive in Seoul to examine the situation as early as next week.
"Contact precautions and eye protection should be added when caring for probable or confirmed cases of MERS-CoV infection; airborne precautions should be applied when performing aerosol generating procedures," said WHO in its statement on the outbreak in Korea.
"WHO does not advise special screening at points of entry with regard to this event nor does it currently recommend the application of any travel or trade restrictions."
Those who visited Pyeongtaek St. Mary's Hospital can report themselves by either calling 129 or visiting www.mw.go.kr.