A medical residential facility for senior citizens with fragile health conditions may have been affected by Middle East respiratory syndrome, the Health Ministry said Tuesday.
This has raised questions about the government's lack of safety measures for those who are most vulnerable to the virus, especially the elderly with pre-existing health conditions such as lung or kidney disease.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the virus had killed seven people, infected 95 ― including a pregnant woman and a teenager ― and pushed public health officials to quarantine almost 3,000 others.
Also on Tuesday, 10 Koreans who had been quarantined in Hong Kong and China since May 26 were released.
They had been isolated after taking the same flight with Korea's 10th confirmed MERS patient from Incheon to Hong Kong on May 26. They never showed symptoms during the incubation period and are currently healthy, said the Healthy Ministry. The 10th patient, however, still requires additional treatment in China, authorities said.
As the number of infected patients continued to soar against hopes that the virus will start to abate this week, the 16-member joint mission team from the Korean government and World Health Organisation started its investigation Tuesday.
"I want to thank the government (of Korea) for being very active in inviting WHO to come and work with your experts," said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director general for health security at WHO.
"We know when new outbreaks of new viruses appear in any country it often causes tremendous amounts of difficulties. So we again congratulate the government for making such strong efforts to deal with the situation."
With the newly confirmed cases, three more facilities, including one of the biggest hospitals in the country, have been reported as MERS-affected hospitals.
Health authorities also confirmed that the 94th patient, who was diagnosed on Tuesday, left the Hallym University Medical Center in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, on May 28, and moved to a residential medical facility for senior citizens.
It is believed that the 71-year-old was exposed to the virus on May 27, when the 15th patient stayed at the same hospital.
The 15th patient was diagnosed with MERS on May 29, a day after the 94th patient had already left the hospital, so the authorities weren't aware of the possibility of infection for the 95th patient.
He was eventually discovered by the Health Ministry and was quarantined at another facility. At the time of being quarantined, he had been asymptomatic, said Jeong Eun-kyung, an official from the Health Ministry. Jeong didn't reveal the name of the residential facility for the elderly.
Concerns have been rising about the government's lack of protective measures for the most vulnerable, especially the elderly with pre-existing health conditions.
When asked Monday if the Centres for Disease Prevention had any additional plans to help the elderly avoid the virus, Jeong from the agency said it is "unclear whether those who died of MERS in fact died because of the virus or because of their pre-existing medical conditions."
All of the seven deceased were aged 50 or older, and had been suffering from other diseases prior to their MERS diagnosis, including cancer, kidney and lung conditions.
"I don't think much is being done to protect those who are vulnerable," said a Seoul-based doctor who wanted to remain anonymous.
"I think there should be a special task force team just to prevent the spread of the virus among the elderly, pregnant women, and those with fragile health conditions. They are the ones who need the attention and extra care the most, who need safe access to health services the most."
Seoul also confirmed the first MERS case of a pregnant woman Tuesday.
The woman in her 40s appeared to have been infected with the virus while briefly staying at an emergency room at the Samsung Medical Center, where the 14th confirmed patient was staying.
The woman is due to give birth this month and was staying in the hospital's maternity ward.
However, health officials said the number of new cases may begin to dwindle this week.
This week is very crucial to combat the disease," acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan said in a meeting with officials over the spread of the virus.
"We will mobilize all available resources and required budget to help tackle the disease as soon as possible."
Another newly confirmed patient on Tuesday is a 27-year-old who was infected by the sixth patient while staying at the emergency room of the Asan Medical Center, one of the largest hospitals in the country, in Seoul on May 26.
The sixth patient, who was diagnosed on May 28, died on June 1.
The seventh MERS death was confirmed Tuesday morning. The deceased was diagnosed with the virus on June 6. The 68-year-old had a chronic heart disease and was admitted to the Samsung Medical Center's emergency room for dyspnea on May 27, where she was exposed to the 14th patient. Her condition deteriorated following the diagnosis and she died Monday.
In addition, two other hospitals were confirmed as MERS-affected facilities.
Two newly confirmed patients, aged 64 and 71, respectively, were infected at the Hallym University Medical Center in Seoul by the 15th confirmed patient. Meanwhile, a 47-year-old man was infected by the deceased sixth patient ― his father-in-law ― while caring for him at Yeouido St. Mary's Hospital on May 28.
Among the 95 confirmed patients, three people have been discharged, while nine are reported to be unstable.