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Ministry, Samsung Medical Center playing blame game on MERS outbreak

South Korea’s most prestigious hospital is at odds with the Ministry of Health and Welfare over who is to blame for the outbreak of a deadly virus in 2015.

Samsung Medical Center in Seoul on Tuesday submitted to the ministry a 100-page statement of an argument denying that its missteps contributed to the spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome which killed 37 here in the summer of 2015. 

The move was in response to the ministry’s decision in December to request the police impose a 15-day suspension and a fine of up to 2 million won ($1,715) on the SMC as a punitive measure for its mishandling of MERS patients. Nearly half of all confirmed MERS cases were traced to the SMC. 

“We organized and presented our opinion to the ministry, but it does not mean that we agree or disagree with the ministry’s order,” the SMC official told the Korea Herald.
President Park Geun-hye visits a medical facility during the MERS outbreak in May 2015 (Yonhap)
President Park Geun-hye visits a medical facility during the MERS outbreak in May 2015 (Yonhap)
A ministry official, however, said a vast part of the documents appear to be intended at refuting the ministry’s view and defending the medical center’s response to the epidemic. 

The SMC was at the epicenter of the MERS outbreak in 2015. Out of a total of 186 MERS patients in South Korea that year, nearly half were infected either directly or indirectly via the SMC. Some 6,000 people were quarantined nationwide until the nation was declared MERS-free at the end of the year, almost eight months after the first case was reported.   

According to the ministry, a patient, later found to be a “super-spreader” of the virus, transmitted the disease to at least 80 people at the SMC, before being diagnosed and quarantined. 

Critics, however, say both sides are to blame.  

“The SMC, which detected the first case, made a serious mistake and failed to prevent the spread of the virus. But it was the ministry’s decision not to reveal to the public the list of hospitals with MERS cases,” said a medical industry insider who wished to be unnamed. 

During the early stages of the outbreak, the ministry blocked the Korean Hospital Association’s disclosure of a list of hospitals that treated MERS patients, including the SMC, for no clear reason. The ministry later explained that it was to prevent unnecessary public confusion. 

The SMC is known as one of the finest medical facilities in the country led by a former head of the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases.

The Chairman of Samsung Group Lee Kun-hee has been hospitalized at the SMC, in a 20th-floor VIP room, since he suffered a heart attack in 2014.

By Kim Da-sol (ddd@heraldcorp.com)
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