Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — In one sign of a possible return to normalcy, thousands of schools across South Korea re-opened on Monday after closures due to the deadly MERS outbreak.
But it came with heightened awareness; children’s temperatures were monitored in classrooms and teachers warned students to practice personal hygiene and frequently wash their hands.
Not all schools have reopened; 440 remain shut as officials seek to stop the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
The World Health Organization had recommended re-opening institutions last week because transmission of the virus had not been linked to schools.
16 now dead in South Korea
Nearly four weeks into the South Korean outbreak, cases and deaths continued to mount on Monday.
Five new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome have been confirmed in South Korea, bringing the total to 150. Another person also died from the virus, raising the MERS death toll to 16, according to the country’s Ministry of Health.
The outbreak has sparked international concern, stalled the nation’s economy and resulted in over 100,000 canceled tourist visits to the country. Korea’s department store sales tumbled 16.5% compared with the same period last year and retail shops also decreased 3.4%, according to the Ministry of Strategy and Finance.
The ongoing situation has put Korean authorities under scrutiny for their inability to contain MERS cases and President Park Geun-hye has seen her approval ratings plummet.
Team sent to Busan
In a news conference Monday, the Ministry of Health announced that a special task force had been sent to South Korea’s second largest city, Busan, after learning that one of the most recently diagnosed MERS patient had visited several hospitals and clinics in the area.
“We are doing our best to stop the spread of MERS,” said the Korean minister of health. “We are analyzing the CCTV with the help of Busan police,” referring to tracking down who had been at the hospitals.
On Sunday, a 61-year-old man died in a Busan hospital with MERS.
South Korean health officials along with a WHO team said this weekend, that the outbreak was slowing, but additional cases were expected.
Saudi Arabia connection
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has recorded five cases of MERS in the past week, the official state-run Saudi press agency said Sunday, citing a weekly Ministry of Health statement. It included one death of a 73-year-old man who died in the city of Turaba and had a pre-existing condition.
The strain of coronavirus that causes MERS was first identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, according to the WHO.
The man believed to be “patient zero” in the current outbreak in South Korea visited Saudi Arabia in May, along with three other Middle Eastern countries. That 68-year-old patient went from facility-to-facility near or around Seoul before getting properly diagnosed. It triggered the hospital-based transmission of MERS in South Korea.
The South Korean outbreak is the largest outside of Saudi Arabia — over 5,000 people remain in quarantine.
Gangnam hospital focal point in MERS outbreak
In Seoul, Samsung Medical Center — one of the city’s hospitals that has counted many of the nation’s MERS cases among its patients and visitors — announced Sunday that it will suspend all surgical procedures except for emergency surgery “to fully focus on responding to MERS.”
More than 50 confirmed MERS cases have been traced back to the medical center, according to the center’s website.
The medical center, located in Seoul’s glitzy Gangnam district and considered one of the most prominent hospitals in the capital, issued an apology for its handling of MERS.
“We sincerely apologize with our heads bent to the people for causing great concern as Samsung Medical Center became the center (of) the spread of MERS,” hospital President Song Jae-hoon said.