The rapid and global spread of “19-ncv” (2019 Novel Coronavirus) has put local physicians on edge as the Lunar New Year kicks off Friday.
While the public is somewhat showing a calm and distant stance toward the outbreak, doctors are worried that the disease might spread during the four-day holidays. The holiday season will see a large number of Chinese tourists entering the country, and Koreans will also travel to visit their loved ones in the suburbs.
"The Lunar New Year holiday season will likely become a turning point for coronavirus outbreak in Korea," a hospital official said to Korea Biomedical Review, asking to remain anonymous. "Although Korea is intensifying security and setting up quarantine measures to contain the virus, there is a high risk of rapid transmission if the symptoms appear after a certain period and affect the public in the process."
Medical professionals are worried that after the Lunar New Year, Korea may see another infectious disease outbreak in the country.
The nation suffered severely from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015. During the MERS crisis, Korea’s quarantine system collapsed helplessly. At the time, the health authorities quarantined 16,752 patients, had 186 cases confirmed, and saw 38 fatalities.
Problems unique to Korea, such as the bustling emergency room, reckless allowance of visitors to patients, called here as “byeongmunan,” and poor quarantine system network were the primary reasons for the spread of MERS five years ago. Korea has since focused on upgrading its quarantine system to prepare itself better for future infectious outbreaks.
Experts say that the new quarantine system will be put to the test on whether or not it will work efficiently in containing new outbreaks.
"If hospitals again fail to contain the coronavirus’ super-spreader -- a patient who that easily infects other people due to high viral activity and weak immune system -- we may have another MERS incident on our hands," the official said. "During the MERS outbreak, 186 confirmed cases occurred in 16 hospitals in Korea, of which 44.1 percent were exposed to the virus after visiting or being hospitalized in the hospitals."
At the time, the health authorities confirmed that the first patient had contacted several people outside the room, but underestimated MERS' infectivity and terminated the epidemiologic study without considering the possibility of further cases.
Quarantine authorities appear more confident, however. Officials at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) said they had strengthened the reporting system centered on the emergency room and that the number of patients that may infect the disease while visiting hospitals is unlikely to be high this time around.
"For example, many hospitals now have separate spaces for classifying patients in front of the entrance of the emergency room, so patients suspected of having a new coronavirus infection are less likely to mix with other patients," the KCDC said.
Hospitals have also stepped up efforts to contain the virus.
According to medical professionals, major university hospitals in Seoul have posted a notice throughout the hospital informing patients to disclose their recent travel history while asking doctors to screen and report any suspected cases of the coronavirus.
The Korea Hospital Association has also set up a 24-hour emergency response team that will promptly inform member hospitals of government measures to prevent the spread of infection, receive and handle reports on the new coronaviruses.
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