South Korea on Tuesday confirmed three more deaths from Middle East respiratory syndrome, including a man with no preexisting medical conditions, adding another challenge to the theory that the virus is only dangerous to those in poor health.
Four additional patients were also confirmed, bringing the total number of cases to 154.
One of the deceased, a 49-year-old man, marked the youngest MERS-related death in the country, according to the MERS special response team at the Health ministry.
The other two, 58-year-old and 65-year-old men, had no underlying diseases.
As of now, four of Korea's 19 MERS-related deaths did not have preexisting conditions. The ministry did not comment on the specific details of their deaths, saying they needed to be reviewed by experts.
Three of the four new MERS patients were infected at Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, which is now the source of 75 infections.
A potential Korean MERS patient in Slovakia reported earlier turned out to be a false alarm, the ministry said. The patient, in his 30s, tested negative, meaning Slovakia remains free of MERS.
Seventeen patients have made full recoveries and have been discharged. Of the 118 still receiving treatment, 16 are in unstable condition.
As of Tuesday morning, 5,586 people were quarantined for possible MERS infection.
With the MERS outbreak in Korea entering its fifth week, the government has stepped up countermeasures. The Cabinet approved the use of reserve funds to cover medical expenses caused by MERS. The government will allocate 50.5 billion won ($45.2 million) for equipment and supplies, along with support for medical institutions and medical staff.
Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea also vowed to provide an additional 6 billion won in subsidies for schools to cover MERS-related costs in a briefing held at the Seoul Government Complex. He added students missing classes due to MERS would not be penalized.
Acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan warned officials of the possible "excessive" fears of MERS spreading among the public.
"I urge all ministries to carry out their respective events as scheduled ― if possible ― and invite ministers and vice ministers to visit (MERS-affected) regions," he said in a Cabinet meeting held early Tuesday.
Local medical staff have even started turning to experimental measures to cure MERS, the Health Ministry said. Two medical institutions ― Seoul National University Hospital and Dankuk University Hospital ― have started convalescent plasma therapy using the blood of patients that recovered from the disease.
There has not been a clinical trial on such treatments for MERS coronavirus, so it is not clear whether the treatment is beneficial or harmful overall. Health authorities said this was being used in the absence of any known treatments for MERS.
With tertiary infections already having been reported, preventing the outbreak from turning into an epidemic remains among the government's biggest concerns.
Saturday, an ambulance worker at Samsung Medical Center was found to have worked for nine days after showing MERS symptoms. During the time, he came in contact with roughly 200 patients and medical staff, sparking more doubts about the hospital's ability to handle contagious diseases.
Last week, a policeman from Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province was confirmed as a MERS patient, but authorities have yet to figure out exactly how and when he caught the virus.
Monday, the government's MERS response team said the possibility of him having been infected at a hospital was low, sparking concerns that the virus is already spreading among the general public.
"The reason we said he was unlikely to have been infected at a hospital was because we needed to conduct further analysis on his movements. We did not conclude that it has spread to the general public. It is still possible that he may have been infected at a hospital, which is what we're trying to find out," said Jeong Eun-gyeong, an official from the MERS response team.
Upgrading the alert level from the current "caution" ― the second-lowest of a four-phase alert system for national crises ― is not being considered as of now, although authorities did not rule out the possibility.
"If there is a possibility of rapid nationwide infection, as in the case of swine flu, and the (MERS) virus is spread to the general public, I think we have to upgrade the status. But as of now, we are not discussing the upgrade on the basis of further proliferation of MERS," said Kwon Deok-cheol, the general director of the response team.
Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO, will visit Korea on Thursday and offer the organisation's evaluation on the MERS outbreak, the Health Ministry said. She will also offer suggestions on the MERS situation to the government.