SEOUL: South Korea recorded its sixth death and biggest single dayjump in Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) infections Monday, with 23 new cases in the largest outbreak of the potentially deadly virus outside Saudi Arabia.
From just four cases two weeks ago, the total number of infections now stands at 87, including six people who have died.
The latest fatality was an 80-year-old man who died Monday morning in a hospital in Daejeon, 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of Seoul.
The outbreak has triggered widespread public concern in South Korea, with 2,300 people placed under quarantine orders and nearly 1,900 schools—mostly in Seoul and surrounding Gyeonggi province—closed down.
Among the 23 new cases, 17 were infected at the Samsung Medical Center in southern Seoul, the health ministry said.
One of them was a 16-year-old student hospitalized on May 27 for another disease, the education ministry said, in the first case involving a teenager.
Given the period of time he had been in hospital, the ministry stressed it was “not possible” that he had infected any classmates at school.
All the infections so far have been restricted to hospitals, with transmissions between patients, staff and their families.
Criticized for its initial response to the outbreak, the government on Sunday vowed “all-out” efforts to curb the further spread of the virus, including tracking the mobile phones of those under house quarantine to ensure they stay home.
Hundreds of public events, school trips and sporting fixtures have been cancelled, with movie theatres, theme parks and shopping malls reporting big drops in the number of customers.
Both E-Mart and Lotte Mart, two of the country’s biggest supermarket chains, reported a 12 percent drop in weekly store sales from June 1 to June 6.
But sales on their websites surged by about 50 percent as more consumers chose to stay at home and shop online.
Those who did venture to the stores were greeted by staff who wiped down the handles of the supermarket trolleys before and after use.
Schools that remained open screened students arriving for class Monday morning, checking their temperature with an ear thermometer at the gate and sending home anyone with even a mild fever.
Lee Hyun-Shil, a Seoul mother of a seven-year-old, expressed frustration over what she described as the government’s slow response to the outbreak.
“I am in utter shock. I can’t believe this is happening in South Korea,” Lee told AFP while taking her son to a kindergarten.
“I am really worried these days . . . and wonder if it’s OK to use a subway to go somewhere,” she said.
The Samsung Medical Center —one of South Korea’s largest hospitals—has placed nearly 900 patients and medical staff under observation, and health officials said they expected to see more cases there in the coming days.
More than 20 countries have been affected by MERS, with most cases in Saudi Arabia.
The virus is considered a deadlier but less infectious cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people when it appeared in Asia in 2003.